Respect could have been a cliché where the artist rises above her troubled origins, finds early success, is dragged down low by abuse and addiction but in the end overcomes all to achieve a legendary career. But it is more than that.
The 2021 movie stars Aretha Franklin’s personal choice, Jennifer Hudson, in the title role, with Forest Whitaker as her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Skye Dakota Turner gives a powerful performance as the eight-year-old Aretha. The film’s director, Liesl Tommy, and writer, Tracey Scott Wilson, are both Black women who have made a moving film that resonates with the struggles of women, particularly Black women.
Early trauma and survival
In the opening scene the young Aretha is roused from bed by her father to sing for guests. The film makes it clear that her needs came second to his need to show off his daughter’s talent to make himself look important.
C.L. Franklin is abusive, and Aretha’s mother, gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin, played by Broadway star Audra McDonald, leaves to escape the minister’s cruelty. The children regularly visit their mother. The scene where Aretha Franklin tries to get her mother to stay with them is heartbreaking. Sadly, Barbara Siggers Franklin dies of a heart attack at 34, leaving Aretha with nowhere to turn. After her mother’s death, Aretha Franklin is raped at one of her father’s parties — and has her first child before the age of 13. She tells no one about the sexual assault and instead falls into an unbreakable silence, emotionally isolated from her family.
The Rev. Franklin is depicted as a controlling patriarch who constantly tries to run the young singer’s life. He chooses the music she performs, tries to pick her boyfriends and control her career. But Aretha grows away from her father and then sheds her violent, abusive first husband. She starts to find her own voice and develop a mind of her own. She insists on choosing her musicians and songs and maintaining creative control of all her albums.
For live performances, Franklin insisted on guarantees that she would never perform to segregated audiences and without first being paid in cash.
One famous scene in Respect depicts Franklin’s recording sessions with the famous Muscle Shoals Band. She is skeptical when she rolls up to the Alabama studio and finds it in the middle of the country, and the band is all white. But once she hears their music, she announces they “sound like Harlem.” She insists on hiring them over the objections of her first husband.
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The movie’s depiction of Franklin and the band as they work on the song “Respect” illustrates how music creation is a collective, collaborative venture — not about the individual singer or musician.
A civil rights fighter
Some of Aretha Franklin’s history with the civil rights movement is included, particularly the time she spent with her father, a leader in the early 1960s struggle.
Her father organized civil rights bus tours around the country. He agreed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on demanding non-violence. Aretha Franklin disagreed, saying “You have to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.” She vocally challenged him about limiting her role to singing and fundraising, and demanded that she also march.
In 1970, when Black Panther and Communist Party member Angela Davis was arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges of kidnap and murder, Aretha offered to post her bail. She said, “Angela wants freedom for Black people. I have the money. I got it from Black people and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Davis later said that saved her life because the offer generated enormous international publicity.
Franklin’s songs of female empowerment like “Respect,” “Think,” and “Do Right Woman” became feminist theme songs. As a Black woman who faced trauma from childhood to adulthood, she fought back through her activism and her music. Aretha Franklin literally sang of and for her life. She was a survivor.