Aretha Franklin and the Futility of Trying to Portray Her Onscreen

Early on in “Respect,” the latest onscreen retelling of Aretha Franklin’s story, the aging jazz and R&B star Dinah Washington asks her protégée, “Child, are you ever going to tell us who the daddy is?”

Otherwise timid or thankful, Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) responds to Washington’s probing about the paternity of her sons, the first born when she was only 12, with a mix of incredulity and imposing silence. Suddenly what starts off as one of the film’s main mysteries and perhaps Franklin’s biggest childhood trauma ends up as a throwaway line, never to be revisited again.

Instead, “Respect,” the debut film by the renowned theater director Liesl Tommy, ends up heeding the advice Washington gives Franklin about her music: “Honey, find the songs that move you.” The biopic is less a movie about Franklin’s interior life or the origins of what her character insists are the “demons” that haunt her, and more about how she as a prodigious vocalist and brilliant pianist and songwriter channeled her pain into songs that moved not just her, but the entire world. In the end, those gaps in the plot are distracting and keep Franklin at arm’s length, rendering her as elusive on the screen as she was in public in real life.

“Respect” is part of a larger trend of films and TV series — including the National Geographic mini-series “Genius: Aretha,” starring Cynthia Erivo, and the Sydney Pollack documentary “Amazing Grace” (filmed in 1972 but released in 2018) — that all try to capture Franklin’s virtuosity. In their own way and to varying degrees of success, each struggles with how best to showcase her as a singular artist while expanding our understanding of a woman so intent on privacy.

The upside of “Respect” is that it truly focuses on the intricacies of her music-making. The most riveting scenes are when we see her really play: in a recording studio turned jam session with the all-white Muscle Shoals band in Alabama, turning a sleepy “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” into a sultry, soulful confession. Or when she wakes up her sisters, Erma (Saycon Sengbloh) and Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) in the middle of the night to rearrange the Otis Redding classic “Respect,” with her siblings adding the famous “Re-re-re” riff and forever transforming the song into a Black woman’s anthem.

Given how electrifying those moments were, I found myself wanting more and more music, a feat achieved by Hudson’s own riveting take on Franklin’s classics as well as my memory of hearing Franklin’s powerhouse voice for the first time. In this sense, “Respect” gives us the biopic I always thought I was looking for — a portrait of a Black woman whose musical genius remains front and center without being sidelined or overshadowed by her personal struggle with trauma. Though the movie does show Aretha battling depression or her husband, Ted White, such agony never overtakes the story or our sense of her musicality the way it does in other biopics about iconic Black women performers, like Billie Holiday or Tina Turner. Instead, “Respect” treats trauma as a string of unresolved secrets, the source of which neither the film nor Franklin herself ever felt compelled to share with her audience.

The result is a movie that skews too closely to Franklin’s own self-image, a narrative that she tightly controlled during her lifetime as a matter of privacy and as a way to assert her own power in an industry, and country, dominated by sexist and racist stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality and intelligence.

The biographer David Ritz wrote of this distance in “Respect,” his second book on Franklin, saying, “In spite of my determination to be a compassionate listener, someone whose gentle persistence would allow her to reveal all her sacred secrets, my technique ultimately did not work. In the end, I didn’t make a dent in her armor.”

Further reflecting on his first biography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” which he wrote based on interviews with Franklin, and which thus had her blessing, he said, “She got the book she wanted. To this day, Aretha considers her book an accurate portrait.”

Franklin’s imprint is all over the film “Respect” as well. She handpicked Hudson, a move that set music as the center of the movie but risked the appearance that Hudson’s depiction might be too dependent on Franklin’s own self-image. In other words, as good as the music sounds (and it sounds soooooo very, very good), the plot holes about her past, which seemed to inform much of her character’s decision-making, kept nagging at me as I watched.

Why did her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), leave her children behind with her domineering husband, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), only to show up, after her death, as an angelic force in Aretha’s life?

Why doesn’t Aretha remember having to rush to the roof and sing loudly with her sisters as children in order to drown out her parents fighting?

And what is the shame the film keeps hinting at, but, like Aretha, never wants to confront?

What does she need music to save her from?

In one notable scene in “Respect,” her friend the Rev. James Cleveland says to Aretha, “There are no demons. Just the pain you’ve been running from your whole life.” Reassuring her more, Cleveland notes, “He knows it wasn’t your fault.”

And because we aren’t quite sure if he is referring to her pregnancy, her mother’s departure or something else, we applaud Aretha’s catharsis while wondering about the cause.

The mini-series “Genius: Aretha,” written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, however, is more forthcoming. By showing a young Aretha as the victim of sexual assault and attributing her parents’ breakup to her father’s own impregnating of a 12-year-old girl in his congregation, potential explanations of her childhood trauma are revealed but do not dominate its depiction.

But even in this version, Aretha is a somewhat muted presence, and Erivo (a powerhouse vocalist herself) sometimes seems constrained by the need to toggle back and forth between Franklin’s introverted nature at home and her iconic status onstage.

Maybe this is why I still find myself obsessed with the one movie that she never wanted to be seen onscreen: the documentary “Amazing Grace.” Filmed ​​by Pollack over two nights in a Los Angeles Baptist church in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Watts, “Amazing Grace” is all gospel, a cinematic capturing of spiritual ecstasy and religious exaltation, and a Franklin who surrenders her voice to God, and is at her most sublime.

Dismissing the documentary in 1999 in her memoir, she told Ritz, “When I saw what had been done in one section of the film, I was appalled.” She went on, referring to the gospel singer Clara Ward, “One of the cameramen kept shooting straight up underneath Clara’s dress. She was in the front row. Talk about bad taste!” (Franklin would later say her aversion to its release had nothing to do with its content, which she claimed to have “loved.”) Her disdain for the project led her to sue repeatedly to block its release, though it finally found its way to theaters a few months after her death in 2018.

This is perhaps why both “Respect” and “Genius: Aretha” felt compelled to include Pollack’s shoot in their narratives. For “Amazing Grace” had the privilege of giving us Franklin on her own musical terms without having to contend with the singer’s self-portrait. And in that freedom, it was able to share itself as one of Franklin’s best kept secrets.

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