“Her talent was a gift”: Jennifer Hudson on bringing Aretha Franklin to the big screen

Hand-picked by the Queen of Soul herself, the star of 'Respect' has waited a long time to portray her idol. We find out what it means

When a musician reaches the hallowed level of Aretha Franklin, it’s easy to dehumanise them slightly. Respect, the glossy new biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, succeeds because it shows us the woman who struggled and suffered on her way to becoming the unquestionable ‘Queen of Soul’. Franklin’s staggering talent is never in doubt – “it was a gift from God and she was anointed; it was as simple as that,” says Hudson, speaking over Zoom from her Chicago home – but Respect spotlights the obstacles and psychological demons she overcame in pursuit of greatness.

Liesl Tommy, Respect‘s South African director, says the key to fleshing out the woman behind iconic hits like ‘Think’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ was exploring her formative years in the ’50s and ’60s. “We think we know her,” says Tommy, who made history in 2016 by becoming the first woman of colour to be nominated for Best Direction of a Play at the Tony Awards. “And yes, we know that she’s fabulous, that she was always telling people off, and that she was a powerhouse. But she wasn’t like that as a little girl.”

And so Respect begins with a 10-year-old Franklin (played by Skye Dakota Turner) being woken up by her father, the influential Baptist Minister C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), so she can sing for his party guests. Because her father was, as Hudson notes, “a legend in his own right”, those guests include huge stars of the time like Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) and Smokey Robinson (Lodric D. Collins).

Jennifer Hudson
Hudson with ‘Respect’ director Liesl Tommy. CREDIT: Universal

In the film, Franklin’s father has immense reverence for his daughter’s talent, but is also presented as an overbearing figure whom she and her sisters are frightened of. This fear, combined with the tragic death of her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) when she was nine, are shown to have a deeply traumatising effect on the future superstar. “The two observations that come up over and over again about her childhood was that she was a musical genius – everybody knew that from the time she was four – but also that she was cripplingly shy,” Tommy says. “And so [when making this film] I thought: ‘How do you go from being a cripplingly shy little girl to the Aretha Franklin that we all know?”

Tommy says she also wanted to explore why Franklin could sing with such unrestrained emotion, but also with supreme nuance. “Her music can be epic and full of triumph, but also very intimate and she can be very vulnerable in it. And so I thought: those are my guideposts for the film,” the director says. “We’re going to have moments of profound intimacy where we feel like she’s singing only to us. But we’re also going to have these epic moments like [Aretha singing] ‘Respect’ at Madison Square Garden, which was a real moment of triumph.”

“Aretha said: ‘I want you to play me'” – Jennifer Hudson

Hudson, who portrays Franklin from 17 to 30 years of age, says the role was so intimidating that she didn’t feel ready when she was first put forward in 2006. Then again, the person doing the putting forward was Franklin herself, who was rightly impressed by Hudson’s incendiary breakthrough performance in Dreamgirls. Recalling their encounter at the time, Hudson smiles and says: “You know when you have your game face on, but inside you’re like ‘what in the world?’ It was exciting, but also scary.”

The right Franklin project didn’t come together until 2019, a lengthy gestation Hudson was grateful for because she had so much more “life experience” to pour into the role, but her nerves never disappeared completely. “Even when it was time to film, I was still freaking out in my mind about it,” she recalls. “But because she had said, ‘I want you to play me’, that gave me the courage to be able to get through it. It was like, well, if you believe I can do it, I’m willing to try.”

The film doesn’t gloss over Franklin’s problems with alcoholism, which peaked in the early ’70s after she became famous, but Tommy is more cautious in her portrayal of the singer’s experiences of childhood sexual assault. Franklin gave birth to her first baby when she was just 12, then became a mother again at 15, but was understandably reluctant to discuss these early pregnancies with reporters. The paternity of her eldest two sons (of four) was only confirmed by Franklin, at least seemingly, in handwritten wills found after she died in 2018. Though Tommy offers a somewhat shocking visual of the 12-year-old Franklin with a pronounced baby bump, the circumstances that led to her first pregnancy are never addressed head-on.

‘Respect’ features Hudson singing some of Franklin’s biggest hits. CREDIT: Universal

Tommy has already defended her decision not to include a rape scene. “There is no need to further re-traumatise our audiences,” the director told Insider last month, adding: “We are saturated culturally with… images of violence on Black bodies, on Black women’s bodies.” The film’s ambiguous approach is a little frustrating, but also feels authentic. As the daughter of a prominent preacher, Franklin’s giving birth out of wedlock would surely have been swept under the carpet at the time. In the film, the singer’s attitude towards what happened is very much ‘never complain, never explain.’

However, we do see glimpses of the physical abuse Franklin suffered at the hands of first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), an opportunistic figure who helped her to escape from a domineering father, but then became an oppressor himself. “I know she was very careful and controlling about her image and her story,” Tommy says, “and I definitely took some risks in terms of what I put in the film. But it was important for us to understand some of the darker periods of her life, because that way you can understand how she was able to sing and emote like that. And that was part of what I decided was my job with this film.”

Respect also delves into Franklin’s false starts as a recording artist, which are more numerous than casual fans might realise. After signing with Columbia Records at 18, label exec John Hammond (Tate Donovan) mistakenly pigeonholes her as a polished jazz singer in the Dinah Washington mold. In one of the film’s most electrifying scenes, Hudson’s Franklin tries to pay tribute to Blige’s Washington by covering one of her songs, prompting a furious dose of tough love from the older musician. Washington’s advice is served straight up: find your own sound, or you’ll never be a success.

“You can’t help but absorb greatness” – Jennifer Hudson

“I knew that was going to be a juicy scene,” Tommy says with an equally juicy laugh. “But it’s also a scene where some real sisterhood happens. Jennifer and Mary J are themselves icons, so I thought it would be fun to have two icons play icons in the film. That way, they really know of what they speak.” Indeed, Tommy says the two singers bonded during read-throughs by comparing notes from their own careers. “They both shared stories of the [fellow] divas that treated them kindly, with love and support, and the ones who kind of made them feel like crap,” Tommy recalls. “So they really understood these two women and the part each would have played in the other’s life.”

Hudson believes Franklin’s interactions with fellow musical greats were integral to her artistic development. “I think she was a sponge [who was] learning as she went on,” she suggests. “Think about it: everyone in her life was a legend or an icon. That blows me away.” The film also shows Franklin’s unflinching loyalty to civil rights leader Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown), who was a contemporary of her father’s. Whenever King asked her to sing at a rally, Franklin said yes, becoming a figurehead of the movement in her own right. “You can’t help but absorb greatness from that,” Hudson continues. “And although she started out taking a backseat, eventually she crept up and took charge of her own life and career. And when she did, that’s when we got our Queen of Soul.”

Hudson really captures Franklin’s crackling mix of frustration, self-belief and insecurity when her first nine albums fail to produce a bona fide hit. For Tommy, the singer’s determination to push forward after a brutal series of flops was rooted in her desire to live up to sky-high expectations. “She grew up around luminaries: her father was one of the most successful Black preachers of his time and his mentee was Martin Luther King,” the director says. “And then you had all these musical luminaries coming in and out of her house. She called Sam Cooke and Ella Fitzgerald ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’. When you’ve only grown up with excellence, and then you find yourself failing, that’s a really horrible feeling. It must be deeply traumatic to feel like you’re not just letting yourself down, but also your family and your race.”

Jennifer Hudson
“It was important that everyone in the film sang live”, says director Liesl Tommy. CREDIT: Universal

At its core, Respect is a story of self-actualisation. As Franklin grows in confidence and discovers her own musical identity, her career finally blooms as it was always meant to. Studio scenes in musical biopics can feel staid and pedantic, but Respect really illuminates the way Franklin turned ‘Respect’ into a searing signature hit in 1967, shortly after her career breakthrough with the equally stunning ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’. ‘Respect’ was originally released by Otis Redding two years earlier, but we see Franklin transform his song into a scorching scream of feminist energy, backed by the crack session players from Muscle Shoals, Atlanta, with whom she created an era-defining groove. You’ll finish the film wanting to dig into Franklin’s catalogue on Spotify.

Hudson calls singing ‘Respect’ and other Franklin classics such as ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ “the ultimate assignment” for her as a performer. It was an assignment surely made even more pressurised by Tommy’s insistence on total authenticity. “One of the most important things for me – and this comes from being a theatre director who’s done a lot of musicals – was that everyone in this film was going to sing live,” the director says. “That influenced my casting because everybody needed to have a world class voice, which is why I cast [six-times Tony Award winner] Audra McDonald as her mum and [Broadway veteran] Tituss Burgess as [Franklin’s musical collaborator] James Cleveland.”

“I took some risks with this film” – director Liesl Tommy

In the film, as Franklin’s profile grows, so does her confidence in saying no to the (mainly white, exclusively male) record execs trying to steer her career. Her landmark 1972 gospel album ‘Amazing Grace’ is a triumph she only made by defying the wishes of influential producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). We also see Franklin relishing the trappings of life as a superstar burnished with both commercial success and critical acclaim. “She had earned the right to fabulousness and I wanted this film to look and feel glamorous,” Tommy says, before noting that her Franklin needed to remain three-dimensional even as she embraced her inner diva.

“In film and television, we see Black women being strong and sassy and telling people off – there’s an expectation of what a Black woman’s role in our entertainment world should be,” Tommy says. “But the truth is, there’s so much more to us than just, you know, [being] a rock. We are also vulnerable, unsure and delicate, and I thought it was really important to show all the different facets of this woman.”

Hudson agrees that this film is really about peeling back unseen layers of an incredibly complex musical legend. “We all have a respect for Miss Aretha Franklin, but by the time you’re done with this film, I hope you walk away with a newfound respect,” she says. “When you see her humanity and all the things she overcame to prevail in life, I hope that makes you respect her even more.”

‘Respect’ arrives in UK cinemas on September 10

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