‘RESPECT’ movie review: Fit for a Queen (of Soul)

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in the new MGM biopic

(l-r.) Brenda Nicole Moorer stars as Brenda Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT. A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert© 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. (Quantrell D. Colbert, © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

“They want to hear you sing.”

Forest Whitaker, as C. L. Franklin, opens the film as he awakens his young daughter, Aretha.

From an early age and throughout the rest of her larger-than-life career, everyone wanted to hear her sing, and for different reasons. Whether it was for pure enjoyment or for ulterior motives, Aretha’s voice was and is in demand.

(l-r.) Marc Maron stars as Jerry Wexler, Marlon Wayans as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert© 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved (© 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

And who better to play such a demanding role than Jennifer Hudson, with a voice as iconic as Franklin’s in her own right. Hudson was hand picked by Aretha and worked with her throughout the development of the production until Franklin’s death in 2018.

Quite frankly, no single movie could possibly fit the entirety of the Queen of Soul’s chaotic life, and director Liesl Tommy economizes her limited run time to focus on Aretha discovering her own sound. After watching her grind away at producing album after album with no mainstream hits, and the turmoil that came along with it, there is this moment of catharsis when Franklin starts writing the titular song. You begin to hear each layer as it is developed and builds up to an electrifying full performance of the song by Hudson and the cast.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in RESPECT. A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert. (© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Her roughest moments are arguably the most memorable of this film. From her pregnancy at the age of 12; to being the victim of sexual, physical, and verbal assault; to her debilitating alcoholism, it’s all on full display that feels revealing without being too overdramatic.

Whether you feel for the troubled singer or start to side with the victims of her “demon” outbursts, there is no denying Hudson’s talent as she transforms from an apprehensive teenager to an overworked diva on the brink of a breakdown. It’s an Oscar-worthy journey that showcases just how far Hudson has come as an actress. While the vocals are undoubtedly Hudson, a tremendous amount of respect (pun intended) went into replicating Franklin’s legendary vocals without cheaply imitating it.

The supporting cast is perfectly matched with Hudson’s powerful performance. Forest Whitaker as her overbearing, demons-of-his-own minister father is striking, especially in his moments of figuring out when to be a father and when to be a manager. Marlon Wayans, known for his sharp comedic capabilities, was surprisingly grounded in his role as manager-turned-ex-husband Ted White. Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington brings in much needed comedy throughout the otherwise sobering drama. You also could not help but wish there were more scenes with Audra McDonald as Franklin’s mother. It was a treat to hear her sing, even if just for a little.

Kramer Morgenthau’s beautiful cinematography takes you through the decades starting with Detroit in the 1950s. While Detroit is featured heavily, it’s unfortunate that not a single scene was shot in Motor City. With the backdrop of segregation and political activism, the film shines a light on history’s heavy influence on Aretha and how her life was so intertwined with civil rights; her voice – a vehicle for movements and political activism.

Whether or not you are familiar with Aretha’s life, you are bound to gain a new perspective on the Queen of Soul. A life of hope despite heartache, devastation, and addiction, you will find out what it means to her.

‘RESPECT’ premieres this Friday, August 13th in theaters.


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