Dir: Liesl Tommy. Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J Blige. 12A, 145 mins.
One day, Hollywood biopics will no longer reduce human beings to motivational posters. Until then, we have Respect: a glossy retelling of Aretha Franklin’s life that sucks out her humanity and replaces it with a convenient two-act structure. In the world of Tracey Scott Wilson’s script, Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) is first a child of trauma who rises up to become the lauded Queen of Soul; second, the alcoholic who subdues her addiction in order to record her best-selling (and most personal) record, 1972’s Amazing Grace.
To only see a straight line between suffering and vindication is an appealing but reductive way of looking at someone’s life. And Respect does itself no favours by trivialising abuse and mental illness in the pursuit of likeability. Director Liesl Tommy already has experience in guiding talent towards greatness, having worked with Lupita Nyong’o on the Broadway production of Eclipsed, for which she earned a Tony Award nomination. This project should have been relatively straightforward: to provide a worthy showcase for Hudson, who is tremendous in exactly the kind of way that grabs the attention of awards show voting bodies.
Avoiding mimicry, she instead blends Franklin’s essence with her own, acknowledging how much she owes to her legacy. You can see how Hudson adores her in the way she reverently delivers her lines – the actor’s way of laying flowers at a grave. But, while Respect may offer plenty of opportunity for that powerful, celestial voice of hers to shine, she’s also consistently tempered down by the film’s narrative shortcuts. Is it not a little unfair to end things on the real Franklin’s show-stopping performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Carole King? How could Hudson possibly measure up to that?
Tommy’s film recognises Franklin’s talent, but struggles to define her outside of the men who caused her pain – much like this year’s The United States vs Billie Holiday. Franklin was sexually abused by a family friend, giving birth to two children before the age of 16. Her mother died early, leaving her under the command of her father CL (Forest Whitaker). He was a well-known preacher who prized his associations with the likes of Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington (Mary J Blige), and whose attachment to respectability politics here sees him push his daughter as the more “refined” version of Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. He’ll make her do a twirl for the record producers; slap her if she gets out of line. The moment another man, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), offers to whisk her away, she finds herself relinquishing all control to him, no matter how abusive he becomes.
It’s a familiar cycle, that ever-shrinking vortex of trauma, but Respect would rather cut through the complications and simply hand Franklin her victorious moment of performing “Think” to White’s face, having finally wrestled free of his grasp. But framing him as the one, true barrier to freedom not only minimises her father’s abuse – he’s granted a sentimental reunion in the final reel – it sees the film treat her residual pain, the “demons” we see manifest in alcoholism and mood swings, as something largely perfunctory. Surely, the Queen of Soul deserves better than that.