Film Review – “Respect”

  • Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker
  • Directed by: Liesl Tommy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 25 mins
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was one of the most gifted singers the 20th century produced. As such, she deserved a biopic of the same high caliber that has been made for the likes of Johnny Cash (“Walk the Line”), Ray Charles (“Ray”) and Freddy Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). Unfortunately, her life story in the August 2021 film “Respect” is told in an underwhelming, sluggish manner that leaves much to be desired. However, while it is more akin to a lump of coal than a glass of sparkling champagne, “Respect” does contain a couple of noteworthy performances that give it a little dignity at least.
The story begins in the 1952 Detroit home of Baptist pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) who proudly puts his 10-year-old daughter, Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) on display to sing for a celebrity-filled party he is hosting. Of course, her father’s guests are amazed by her talent, but it almost never bears fruit when her mother, who is estranged from C.L., later dies unexpectedly. It is only through being forced to sing at C.L.’s church that she even speaks again.
Seven years later, 17-year-old mother of two Aretha (Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, who would have been about 39 at the time of filming), meets local producer, Ted White (Marlon Wayans) at one of C.L.’s parties. Aretha’s often controlling father wants her to have nothing to do with the charming Ted, but nine unsuccessful albums later Aretha essentially dumps C.L. as her manager and pairs up with Ted instead.
Aretha’s career starts to take off with hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” yet her life is put in the headlines for the wrong reasons when a “Time” magazine story depicts for all the world to see how physically abusive Ted is towards her. She goes on to experience several ups and downs, both career and relationship wise, over the next several years until she has an epiphany to record what would become a double platinum gospel album.
Hudson does a solid job at presenting what turns out to be a thoroughly cursory depiction of Aretha. It’s not the former “American Idol” contestant’s fault as she has proven in the past that she can delve much deeper into a character’s soul. The criticism must lay at the feet of her director, Liesl Tommy (“Jessica Jones”). Too much of Aretha’s life is glossed over, minimized, or simply swept under the rug, which prohibits us from getting a true grasp of who she was. Tommy’s pacing is also sluggish as molasses on a below zero day and the film should have been trimmed by as least 20 minutes. At points it becomes boring for lack of a better word.
Whitaker is a powerful force when he is on the screen. He dominates every moment he is in the camera’s frame as he skillfully fleshes out the emotions of a flawed man who manages to command the admiration of thousands of followers. Wayans is a revelation in a role that requires him to display charm on the surface while also letting loose the anger, jealously, insecurity, and controlling nature of a man who desires all the credit and adoration that Aretha’s receives.
Overall, while the late Aretha Franklin deserves all the respect in the world, her biopic does not.

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