By Lisa Durden
When I’m not able to attend red carpet screenings, everyone who knows me, knows that I always go to see films opening night. Not just because I’m a journalist, but because I like to be in the know!! I also love the energy and excitement that comes with it!! But more importantly, I am aware that the impact of seeing a film opening weekend, can be the make or break between a film’s success or failure, particularly Black films. So, of course, I had to go see my gurl Jennifer Hudson starring as Aretha Franklin in the much -anticipated biopic – RESPECT, but I was scurd as hell of the Raging Ronas. Therefore, I wasn’t tryna take no chances, so my standing movie date and bestie, Ywanakee Allison, and I, decided to purchase tickets for an early matinee, in hopes that the theater would be a ghost town. YUP, we hit the jackpot!! When we arrived, it was practically empty, making it super easy to social distance! There were only two soccer moms sitting in the back and one tall, cute, #Zaddy, sitting in a front row seat, munching on that dry a_s popcorn. LOL. We settled into our seats, with our masks securely covering our noses and mouths, the house lights went down and the first five minutes came in hot!! As I predicted, the Aretha Franklin Movie did not disappoint…they spilled the R.E.S.P.E.C.Tea!
When Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, I wrote a think piece about her illustrious musical career. However, because she was a very, very, very, very, very, eerily, private person, we really did not know much of anything about her personal life or her back story. Although Auntie ReRe has given tons of interviews over the years, she’s never spoken about her children, her dad, her siblings, her husbands or lovers. So, in anticipation of the biopic, I had some questions about her childhood that I hoped would be answered in the movie. I was curious to know who impregnated her at the age of 12 with her eldest son Clarence Franklin Jr?? Why did she name her son after her dad?? Was he the perpetrator?? I also wanted to know who impregnated her at the age of 14 with her second son Edward Franklin?? There was also an unauthorized biography written about Aretha Franklin by David Ritz titled, ‘Respect: The Secret Life of Aretha Franklin,’ that alleges her father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin’s church services would turn into orgies. I wondered would the biopic corroborate that story of debauchery?? Was his church a house of ill repute??
OK, let’s get into it! Now, before y’all start dragging me and calling me negative…for me, biopics should cover the good, the bad and the ugly of the person’s life. BALANCE! That’s what I watch for. That’s what draws me in. That’s what makes for a great based-on-a-true story…the TEA! Otherwise, this would simply be a huge, on-screen Aretha Franklin concert. In which case, I could simply stay home and watch her performances on YouTube. So YES, of course I expected to see a lot of sanging in the movie. And bayyybeeee, JHud did not disappoint! The 55-million-dollar budget for this movie, clearly gave them the financial means needed to clear the rights to all of the Queen of Soul’s mega hits: Rock Steady, Think, Natural Woman, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), Ain’t No Way, Amazing Grace and of course RESPECT, to name a few. Jennifer Hudson’s vocals were sick! And listening to her belt out those high notes with the greatest of ease, on that Dolby Surround Sound in the Bow Tie Cinemas in the South Orange, NJ, was music to my ears. LITERALLY!
In an OWN Spotlight interview, Jennifer told Oprah Winfrey that Aretha handpicked her for the role, BUT…what sealed the deal was when Aretha saw Jennifer perform a medley of her songs during the 2014 BET Awards. Jennifer sang her face off!! That night was her audition and Ms. Franklin gave her a thumbs up from her seat in the audience. So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she effortlessly, sang every single song, live, during the taping of the biopic. J-HUD IS A BEAST!!
Let’s not forget that Jennifer is an Oscar-Winning actress, as well. Her performance as Aretha was another slam dunk and will create Best Actress Oscar buzz the next award season; she embodied Aretha like no other actress could. That’s in contrast to the NatGeo Genius Aretha series, where Cynthia Erivo flopped. Not because her acting and singing sucked (because sis can blow). What happened was, the Franklin family boycotted the NatGeo project, and didn’t give them the rights to use any of Aretha’s music in the film; A DISASTER! Fortunately, the family gave the RESPECT movie their blessing and it is FIYAH! #ClapForThat!
Marlon Wayans…WOW!! I mean WOW!! This role is not that goofy, gangly, over the top wild child that we’re used to seeing him play on The Wayans Brothers and in White Chicks. Marlon starred as Ted White; Aretha Franklin’s abusive husband-ger. This character is a total departure from the immature prankster, caricatures, that he’s come to be known for. This performance was a welcomed pivot to a more dark, serious, sinister character, with layers and depth. BRAVO! Every scene left me wanting more! Although I didn’t feel any chemistry between the two of them as a couple, I mean there were zero on screen sparks, I was still rooting for them. Ok, y’all, don’t cancel me for what I’m about to say. Those of you who know me, know, I am a truth teller! Unfortunately, I really don’t think this performance will garner Marlon an Oscar nomination. Yeah, I said it! But and however, the better news is, BET and The NAACP will for sure give him some love this upcoming awards season. Also, my prediction is, this will not be the last time we see Mr. Marlon Wayans tearing up the big screen like a true thespian. Oh YES, I am here for it!!
Speaking of the cast … STELLAR!! The formidable actor/director Forrest Whitaker, played Aretha’s father Rev. Clarence “C.L.” Franklin; Broadway and TV diva, Audra McDonald, played Aretha’s mother, Barbara Franklin; The Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary Blige, played singer Dinah Washington; Kimberly Scott played Momma Franklin; Tituss Burgess played Reverend Dr. James Cleveland; Broadway veteran and singer Heather Headley, played singer Clara Ward; Aretha’s sisters were played by, Saycon Sengbloh (Erma Franklin), Hailey Kilgore (Carolyn Franklin), and Brenda Nicole Moore (Brenda Franklin).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention singer/actress Skye Dakota Turner, who played the role of young Aretha Franklin. This young (superstar) lady is all about her business. In every scene, baby girl easily belts out those notes. SHE BRINGS IT like a PRO!
Liesl Tommy, the director of RESPECT, deserves a standing ovation! Her masterful leadership, along with brilliant writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri, made a winning team. I mean, this biopic checks off all the Oscar boxes; Best Actor…CHECK! Best director…CHECK! Banging script…CHECK! Best wardrobe…CHECK! Best Music…CHECK! Best Cinematographer…CHECK! This film has it all! It’s about much more than Aretha’s legendary music career. Although the questions about who fathered her children is never reeeeaaaallly addressed in the film, they hinted to it, but dropped it like a hot potato. My spidey sense tells me it’s an open secret in the Franklin family circles, but good ole “chuch” folk are choosing not to air the dirty laundry, out of respect for the dis-eased. I get it. But and however, the TEA was spilled about her struggles with alcohol abuse, overcoming domestic violence, balancing motherhood and music, and risking it all for her activism!
RESPECT is refreshingly INSPIRING! Oh, juuuuust in case you’re wondering why I didn’t throw in any spoiler alerts, isn’t it obvious?? GO SEE THE MOVIE!!
Lisa Durden is a TV personality, social justice journalist and subject matter expert in the areas of pop culture, politics and social issues. In 2020, she launched her new podcast, Stop Brutalizing Black Bodies, A Platform Created to Amplify Black Voices Unapologetically!! She was an audience favorite as an “A-Plus Panel” contributor on the former My9 Network show, “Chasing News.” Ms. Durden is also an award-winning director/producer in television and film and in 2005, launched Lisa Durden Unlimited Productions, a Multi-Media Company, with a focus on telling compelling stories about underserved communities, featuring big, entertaining, characters! She #KeepsTheCameraHot!! #ClapForThat!!
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