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Respect review: Aretha Franklin biopic falls short of illuminating singer's psyche

·Lifestyle Editor
·2-min read
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Length: 144 minutes
Director: Liesl Tommy
Writers: Tracey Scott Wilson, Callie Khouri
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess

In theatres from 14 October 2021 (Singapore)

3 out of 5 stars

Respect is a musical biopic about the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, played by Jennifer Hudson. The film follows the celebrated singer's life and career from childhood, attempting to map the ups and downs in her relationships with her father, spouse, family and colleagues.  

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect. (Photo: United International Pictures)
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. (Photo: United International Pictures)

Early in the film, Aretha's mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), tells her, "Your voice belongs to no one but God. Don’t let any man tell you what to do." This appears to set up an inspirational story about a Black woman who succeeds against the odds while defying sexism and prejudice. Alas, while the film does a serviceable job of bringing us through the milestones of Aretha's life, you never really get a strong sense of who she was as a person. 

Jennifer Hudson turns in a commendable performance in portraying the anguish that often plagued Aretha Franklin. She lends her powerhouse vocals to the requisite enactments of Aretha's signature songs – "Respect", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)", "Amazing Grace", and "Accentuate The Positive".

Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker in Respect. (Photo: United International Pictures)
Forest Whitaker is Aretha Franklin's father, C. L. Franklin. (Photo: United International Pictures)

However, for a biographical film that's two-and-a-half hours long, one would have expected that we would gain more insights than were offered into lesser known aspects of Aretha's life outside of her musical career. We see things that happen to Aretha and we see her pain, but her inner thoughts and experiences are not explored in depth. We see men speaking for her but rarely hear her speaking her own thoughts. Her opinions on civil rights are lightly touched on but not expressed in detail. One wishes the writing could have been a bit more daring and delved deeper into her inner life, even if that meant more artistic extrapolation of her inner psychology. 

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