Jennifer Hudson already earned an Oscar for her performance in Dream Girls (2007), but the outcome of another Academy Award is likely with this deeply moving performance in Respect. Hudson’s ability to channel Franklin through speaking voice and movement was astounding, and while her singing did not often mimic the legendary voice of Aretha, the emotion and passion was there. Hudson is a powerhouse all her own. 

A Gripping Story In Respect

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

The movie covers only a portion of the late singer’s life. Starting in Detroit the 1950s and ending in the 1970s following her rise from singing in her father’s church to international stardom. Early, the film reveals childhood trauma that haunted the Queen of Soul, allowing audiences to see the debilitating suffering and strain placed on a person who is unable to escape nor confront their demons. For anyone not familiar with the singer’s life, the nearly two and a half hour journey is honest, authentic, and, at times, uncomfortable. 

Narratively Respect tells her story chronologically, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t without surprises and reveals. Just as Aretha learns about her family history, so does the audience. In some scenes viewers will understand the subtext of a distressing situations, but the movie has Franklin reliving them later, exposing where the subtext led. Franklin’s career began unsteady with the men in her life controlling her decisions. Her father’s focus on keeping her connected to the church drove her away until she ultimately found her way back.  It should be noted though, that the movie is not all about trauma. The church and gospel music were incredible influences on Aretha’s music, career, and activism. Through her life, Ms. Franklin was vocal about her activism and the movie didn’t attempt to downplay her deep connection to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally. 

The Cast And Music Of Respect

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in RESPECT Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Bursting with talent, along with Hudson, Respect stars Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, and comedian Marc Maron. In fact, the drama is surprisingly full of comedic actors. Marlon Wayans, of the hilariously talented Wayans family, transforms into the abusive and controlling Ted White – Aretha’s husband, manager, and abuser – allowing audiences to forget his background and see the serious actor he’s becoming. Joining Wayans in a move away from comedy is Titus Burgess, who is best known for his role in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as Reverend Dr. James Cleveland. Burgess seamlessly softens himself for the gentler role as a family friend and confidant for the late singer. 

In addition to the top notch acting, the two plus hours are full of beloved music and fascinating histories of how many of Aretha’s hit songs came to be. Director Liesl Tommy, the first Black woman nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction in 2016, makes her feature film debut with Respect and brings to life both the story of Aretha herself and of the music we all know and love. Much like watching Taylor Swift build and create her own songs in her own documentary, Respect provides a look into how these artists – Aretha, her sisters, and her band – arranged and ironed out the songs that would turn into classics. Regardless of how much fact is actually in the tale, it’s beautiful and exciting to watch. 

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