by Sherri Kolade
You can call Ms. Aretha Franklin by her God-given name, but most people know this Detroiter by her rightful title, “The Queen of Soul.”
The music royalty moniker is fitting for the Detroit legend (resting in peace since 2018) who came to life on the big screen recently as portrayed by actress/singer extraordinaire Jennifer Hudson in the aptly titled movie “Respect.”
Huson portrayed Franklin with Director Liesl Tommy at the helm, making her feature film debut with the biopic coming out in theaters on Friday, August 13. Tommy, the first Black woman to be nominated for a Tony award (for Best Direction of a play in 2016) took creative charge showing the intricate story of Franklin’s successful career from a child singing in her father’s church choir to international superstardom.
“Respect,” a 144-minute movie, delves deep into the iconic real-life story of Detroit’s famous star on this multi-talented, GRAMMY-winning musician’s journey to discover her voice.
And oh, what a voice that millions enjoyed when she did learn to discover her quintessential sound.
Franklin, whose grandiose five-octave vocal range which many couldn’t help but call an anointed God-given gift pushed her to stardom, and allowed fans from all over the world for 62 years to hear her experiences through song.
Belting out songs in the genres of gospel, R&B, pop, jazz, blues and classical music — Franklin was in a world, and class, of her own and Hudson, well – she knew the assignment.
Inside the opulent Fox Theatre on Monday, August 2, none other than Hudson — and Tommy — were in a pre-movie release media blitz doing interviews throughout the day after a red-carpet premiere and movie showing with the Franklin family the previous day.
The Michigan Chronicle had a one-on-one with the actor/director duo inside the theater surrounded by the lavish space with a mix of eastern motifs.
Just beside clear doors trimmed in gold stood an oversize movie poster of Hudson — posing in a psychedelic ‘60’s-style dress as the Queen of Soul herself. Beyond those doors, inside the theater, the actress and director sat in a cozy booth (as theater crew members worked on projects onstage below) to talk about the movie.
Dressed in a fitted yet flowy white blouse complemented with sparkly silver stiletto nails and gold-chained slides, Hudson came across as down-to-earth, vibrant and effortless as the starlet she is. Her bouncy, curly brown bob framed her lightly-made up face as she spoke about how playing Franklin was an honor that she didn’t take for granted.
Hudson said that, “Detroit is the place to be” and she was glad to be able to visit and be surrounded by Franklin’s family and hear from her children and grandchildren.
“What was it like for Aretha Franklin to be your grandmother?” she wanted to know and learned from Franklin’s family, “’She was just grandma.’”
Hudson posted on Instagram that she enjoyed “all of Detroit” but her favorite moment was sitting on Franklin’s childhood porch with her “beautiful family.”
She said that Franklin’s daughter sang, “Ain’t No Way” beautifully.
“The world needs to hear more of her,” she said during the interview.
Hudson said many parts of the movie were her favorite – especially the jam sessions.
“Because that is what I do in real life,” she said, adding that the movie hired actors who were also real-life musicians, and they didn’t always want to end the scenes because they were having too much fun.
From Hudson describing how Franklin asked her 15 years ago to play her to, at times, quietly reflective about her performance, she said she is still in shock about portraying the larger-than-life Queen of Soul. When asked by the Michigan Chronicle how she felt about starring in the film, the powerhouse asked her own question that she has wondered long since the cameras stopped rolling with filming the movie. “Did I do OK?”
During media previews in late July and early August in Detroit, many reporters — and the like– would easily agree that Hudson did more than OK. She tapped into the highs and lows of Franklin who suffered the loss of her mother at a young age, sexual abuse and mistreatment from her former husband. She also exuded the many highs of Franklin’s life, especially when she stood poised behind a microphone belting out classic hits and overcoming her own demons.
“The key for me, what helped me for one, is to actually have known the person,” Hudson, a multi-GRAMMY award winner, said. “Which, somehow allows me to carry even more for them and want to tell the story in the most honest way. While filming to try to experience as closely as she did in her life, which made it even more real to me to be able to deliver it.”
Hudson, who faced her own challenges throughout her life — including the tragic deaths of some of her closest family members — said that she tapped into her emotions which helped her carry Franklin’s story through.
Tommy said that Franklin’s story was relatable to Detroiters, and Black Detroit at that, because it resonates with so many African Americans, and then some.
“Aretha Franklin loved Black people, and I wanted to make a film where Black people were valued, heard and seen, and they were shot with beautiful light,” Tommy said.
When asked about how she wanted to capture the culture and times of Franklin and Detroit, she said that it was important to capture Detroiters as the “kings and queens” they were on that screen. “Because I think that is how she felt about us.”
She added that Detroit was an important element of the film, and showcasing Franklin against the backdrop of Detroit, especially throughout street scenes was crucial for her.
Tommy, who is South African, told the Michigan Chronicle that she wanted to highlight Franklin’s activist background and involvement with justice, too, especially at the local level in Detroit.
“I grew up during the apartheid,” Tommy said, adding that she grew up with activism as a staple throughout her life and she wanted to convey that on the big screen.
“As a little girl myself who grew up listening to people talk around the dinner table about fighting for freedom for themselves and for future generations, I know firsthand that it affects your life forever. It’s who you are. Aretha understood that, and it’s what made her art, activism. When you talk about the Queen of Soul, her church was her activism,” she said in her production notes.
Hudson said that it is indescribable that Franklin grew up with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. like an uncle to her, and it was an important choice for her to be involved in activism any way she could.
Franklin and her four siblings — Erma, Carolyn, Cecil and Vaughn — along with their father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, and mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, moved to Detroit in 1946. Rev. Franklin served as senior pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church for almost 40 years. He was nationally respected for his dynamic preaching, speaking and singing. He, too, was a notable civil rights leader.
Tommy, who is a “big fan” of Franklin, said that it was an important responsibility for her as a Black woman to tell the story of another Black woman, who just so happened to grab the adoration and attention of the nation and world.
Tommy was quoted as saying that she wanted to focus on a specific, formative time period in Franklin’s life “which contained things the general public doesn’t know about her.”
“She had to go on a journey to become the brilliant musician that we know,” she said in her production notes. “To me, that journey felt like the most profound investigation of her legacy. From the beginning, I saw this film as a story about a young woman with the greatest voice in the world, who was fighting to find her own voice.”
Tommy added that more films need to be made about affluent Black people because Franklin came from wealth and it was important to showcase that as a part of who she was.
“Ms. Franklin came from wealth, and her family dynamic resonates throughout the film.”
Hudson, with a Perrier bottle in one hand, said that she is continuing to find her own voice, and Franklin has taught her to show up as the confident woman she knows she is – and she encourages others to do the same.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. — Queen of Soul Revived in Glamorous, Gritty “Respect” Biopic Starring Jennifer Hudson