Eighteen Grammy wins, 44 nominations. The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A Presidential Medal of Freedom. What didn’t Aretha Franklin do? After a long and eventful life, the Queen of Soul passed away in 2018, leaving us with more than 100 songs and numerous accomplishments to remember her by. Now, audiences are graced with a glimpse of her life and career in the biopic “Respect,” where Franklin is exquisitely portrayed by none other than Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson. “Respect” gives viewers what we want and need by showing us Franklin’s life unfiltered by the glitz and glamor of her fame.
The film starts with a young Franklin, also known as “Re” to her family and close friends, played gracefully by Skye Dakota Turner, a young actress and singer whose voice is certainly going places. The film makes it known that even from the time Franklin was a preteen singing at her father’s (Forest Whitaker) parties and Sunday services, her voice was simply invigorating. The onstage musical performances in the film are stunning in all respects, from Franklin’s decadent gowns to the colorful stage lights, all with a voice that anyone can get lost in and then found.
While the world may see her as the effortless Queen of Soul, “Respect” unveils Franklin’s struggles to find her voice as it’s drowned out by those of an overbearing parent, a controlling partner and everyone else in her life who thinks they know best. Her journey to stardom was not a smooth ride, but an uphill battle as she maneuvered through her inner demons and the difficulties of creating a hit song. After nine albums, Franklin finally got the hit she was waiting for with her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” in 1967, which earned her two Grammy Awards.
With Hudson’s performance — both musical and theatrical — it’s no surprise that Franklin hand-picked her for the role. Hudson presents Franklin as unsteady and lost while still being assertive, unbothered and assured. The typical character in a film may grow from weak to strong, uncertain to determined, insecure to confident, codependent to independent, but it is here where “Respect” differs. With a real person, who lived a very real life as its subject, viewers get to see that growth is not always a straight line, but one that can curve and even spiral.
Throughout the film, Franklin learns and relearns what it means to be independent and self-reliant as she navigates her father’s rule, and later her husband’s (Marlon Wayans), both of whom functioned as her manager at different points. The most satisfying moments of the film are not when she sings a beautiful song, but when she wriggles out of the grips of the men who want to control her, choosing to no longer break herself by fulfilling their wishes.
While the film shows Franklin’s downward spiral and moments of distress, “Respect” has an unfortunate tendency to lighten the gravity of some of Franklin’s traumatic experiences. Most notably, the film brushes over the fact that she had her first two children at the ages of 12 and 14. With a short scene and quick flashback to a young Franklin, a child with a pregnant belly, the film doesn’t give the audience enough time to sit with the realities Franklin faced.
While the film refrains from displaying the complete trauma and abuse Franklin faced from a young age, Hudson shows the impact of this on Franklin’s mental health and habits in a subtle, yet poignant fashion. If there’s one thing audiences can take away from the film, it’s that Aretha Franklin was a woman who made the most out of a life that didn’t always deal her the best cards. “Respect” memorializes a musical legend, and with Hudson as Franklin, the biopic pays the Queen of Soul only what she deserves: the utmost respect.