Aretha Franklin can’t get no respect. Exploited by the Democratic Party that organized her 2018 funeral as a campaign stunt for politicians who jumped on the Queen of Soul’s cortège, Franklin gets exploited again in the lugubrious, nearly three-hour biopic Respect.
Check that title: The word “Respect” devolves from Franklin’s powerful 1967 single, an R&B hit later appropriated by the feminist movement, with insensitive disregard for black American language and romance. Feminists and the corporate media flattened the song’s relationship subtleties to assert female social status. The movie, directed by Liesl Tommy and written by Tracey Scott Wilson to be a rise-to-consciousness tale, levels the intimate and social dynamics that Franklin made deep and exuberant. Here, Franklin’s life is merely the pretext for a #MeToo-era tract. This is the most insipid, insidious kind of political filmmaking, like that disingenuous eight-hour exposition-funeral.
As portrayed by American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, Franklin represents the evolution of a timid black girl from Detroit, brought up in the Baptist church, subjugated by her preacher-father the Reverend C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), then surviving a manipulative marriage to her manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans) until she transitions into a showbiz powerhouse.
But Tommy and Wilson don’t respect Franklin’s personal development; they simplify her maturation to fit contemporary tenets. A childhood scene at the piano just before her mother (Audra McDonald) dies misstates her mother’s life lesson: “The most important thing is to be treated with dignity and respect.” This bromide is far from a credible expression of black family morality. It has as little to do with the fundamental spiritual background of Franklin’s art as her father’s speciously advising, “You have a thing they call genius,” which is as off-base as Whitaker’s miscasting. (Is it racism that prevents the filmmakers from grasping the physical attributes and emotional grain of African-American romance and sensuality that made the Reverend C. L. Franklin equally — and problematically — a gospel icon and ladies’ man?) The paradox of Aretha’s womanly songs and her patriarchal upbringing is too complex for a movie this shallow. The important 1960s black cultural mix of sacred and profane music is unfelt; it reduces the tension between gospel creeds and R & B behavioral styles (once the spiritual foundations of black social advancement) just as Black Live Matter manipulators have.
Perhaps most offensive is the attempt at modernizing Franklin’s career as if she were a female James Baldwin. She’s shown making an inauthentic rant: “You have to disturb the peace when you can’t GIT no peace!” It’s part of woke Hollywood’s continued reduction of black American history to Millennial postures.
No wonder Hudson was unsuitably cast in the lead role. For unfathomable reasons, Hudson has come to embody white liberal condescension about the phenomenon of black musical soulfulness. Hudson’s vocals remind one that New Yorker music critic Elizabeth Wurtzel once described Franklin’s singing as “caterwauling.” This may be related to the media’s indifference to Chadwick Boseman’s quicksilver subtleties in his portrayal of James Brown in Get On Up. Respect lacks such depth — the scene where shy Aretha tells producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), “I’d like you to call me Miss Franklin” doesn’t match the matter-of-fact moments when Boseman’s JB initiates mutual respect by setting the world’s terms of personal address. Hudson’s acting lacks the emotional focus and conviction that made Franklin a phenomenon even among her gospel and R & B peers.
Respect is facile — and hackneyed — about the ways that R & B artists managed their personal and professional maneuvers. (Mary J. Blige plays a sassy Dinah Washington warning Aretha to take control of her repertoire.) Tommy and Wilson disastrously fail the fascinating interplay of the legendary moment in Muscle Shoals, Ala., when white and black artistic and spiritual confluence resulted in Franklin’s breakthrough album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.
The film’s narrative builds toward the recording of Franklin’s 1970 gospel album Amazing Grace (a return to basics), but the intricacies of flesh and spirit, career and virtue are absent. Franklin’s struggle with drinking and faith is more confused than last year’s problematic TV biopic The Clark Sisters, about Detroit’s gospel-pop group of the same name. Tommy makes the big number so splashy and synthetic that it resembles the way Dreamgirls disgraced the Motown-Supremes story.
This phony homage to Aretha Franklin doesn’t quite make up for Hollywood’s historic denial of her talent (James Brown and Michael Jackson also suffered Hollywood’s neglect). Respect reminds me of the opportunity missed by the pathetic film version of the stage musical Mama, I Want to Sing and the downright disrespect of John Landis’s misstaging of Franklin’s long-delayed film debut in The Blues Brothers (1980), where her rousing remake of “Think” had to overcome poor choreography and terrible lip-syncing.
Every scene in Respect is lip-synced to today’s political fashion. Franklin’s art and struggles are twisted to make contemporary social-justice points — not to represent the sense of life that Franklin lived. So Cadillac Records — Darnell Martin’s film about Muddy Waters, Etta James, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf — remains the best movie ever made about the geniuses of black popular music.