Aretha Franklin Biopic ‘Respect’ Focuses on Faith

Actress Jennifer Hudson and director Leisl Tommy discuss their highly anticipated new film about the singing legend.  

Posted in , May 21, 2021

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect (Photo by Gillian Smith Chang)

“Singing is sacred... And you shouldn’t do it just because somebody wants you to. What’s most important is that you are treated with dignity and respect.” 

So says Aretha Franklin’s mom, Barbara (played by Audra McDonald), in the official trailer for the long-awaited film, Respect

Starring Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson, Respect is set to be released this August. Hudson may just be the perfect person to take on this role. It’s not just her powerful voice, but the real-life connections she shares with Aretha Franklin

The two women originally met nearly 15 years ago, after Hudson won her Academy Award for Dreamgirls. After staying connected and talking over the years, Franklin finally decided: she wanted Hudson to play her in the story of her life.   

Franklin and Hudson both got their singing starts growing up in church. Franklin’s father was a preacher at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and her mother was a gospel singer. She first started singing in her father’s church and his traveling revival show. Hudson also came from a musical family and attended Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago where she sang in both the adult and youth choirs.  

“One of our closest connections is our faith,” Hudson said in a recent interview.

Showcasing the importance of faith and community was vital to director Leisl Tommy as well. “This story started with the church and finished with the church,” she said. 

Hudson dove into Franklin’s discography to study her voice, particularly how it changed over the years. Since Franklin was an accomplished piano player, Hudson learned to play the piano. “Aretha sent me back to music school,” Hudson said. Yet it was important to her for her portrayal of Franklin to be more than an imitation. “[It was] Aretha’s influence on me and my interpretation on it,” she said, “not just a mimic.” 

Franklin’s commitment to the Civil Rights movement was another aspect that Tommy felt was important to highlight in the movie. In the 1960s, Franklin’s songs – “Respect,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” – hit the top of the charts. As she was dubbed the “Queen of Soul,” she used her platform to advocate for the Black community. Her voice became a symbol for Black power in America. “Her journey is a representation of the American journey,” said Tommy.  

Who tells this story is just as important as the story itself. Respect is written, directed, and produced by Black women (Hudson is an executive producer for the film and Franklin was involved with the project before her death in 2018). This was vital for how the story of Respect is told and what it seeks to teach us.  

Tommy wants to show the complexity of Franklin as a singer, a superstar, and also as a Black woman. “Not just somebody strong, somebody sassy, all the things that we've been told, 'that's the only part of us that's interesting,'” she said. “She can be fragile, she can be scared, she can be unsure, and she can be strong, and she can be powerful, and she can be intimidating.”

“We wanted to show not just the icon or the legend,” said Hudson, “but the human being.” 

Respect is scheduled to be released in August. It stars Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, and Tituss Burgess. Check out the new trailer below.  

Read more about how church and faith shaped Jennifer Hudson’s life and career. 

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