An Icon Forged by Women

Transforming Into a Legend

Elite Creatives Band Together

Variety Streaming Room

An Icon Forged by Women

“Respect” is more than the Aretha Franklin “story”; it is Aretha Franklin re-imagined by Liesl Tommy as “Re,” goddess for the ages — and for the planet.

Like a myriad of women who transcended trauma to lean into their power, Re’s power, Re’s beauty, Re’s wisdom, remind us that we are more than the sins and the evil perpetrated on us and in us.

Four songs anchor this inspiring film: the jazz song young Aretha sings in the open, “Respect,” “Amazing Grace” and “Think!” The latter, for me, is the most unexpected. It reminds us of Re’s capacity as a songwriter, pianist, as well as a singer, and it more profoundly reminds us of her work as a public intellectual, a thinker who inspired others to think and reflect, to move beyond transactions to transcendence.

“Respect” was made by a stellar team, including (left to right) screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, actor Forest Whitaker, director Liesl Tommy and actors Jennifer Hudson, Hailey Kilgore and Saycon Sengbloh.

The story of the song informs and expands the narrative of the film, and the luminous, sharp, deeply powerful Jennifer Hudson takes us on an emotional journey, finding fresh truth in that familiar melody, those familiar words; it is a moment of recognition we didn’t know we needed.

This is Aretha Franklin as we have never seen her: A woman contextualized by women. This Aretha is mentored by her mother and by Dinah Washington. She is supported by her grandmother. Her sisters are significant peers and competition. Mahalia Jackson and Angela Davis are primary political inspirations.

My single favorite frame of the film is Aretha — played by the brilliant Jennifer Hudson — flanked by her siblings. My favorite scene is Mary J. Blige’s Dinah Washington calling on Re to want more from the world than a hit — to want to be what she was destined to be: the place where church and sex come together and art is born that transcends race, gender, politics, family evil and personal mental health challenges, those moments of beauty eclipsing all.

With Black women leading the filmmaking, “Respect” reveals oft-overlooked aspects of Aretha Franklin’s life.

By Caroline Randall Williams

It could feel like impossible work. Telling the story of an icon, telling it well, telling some full version, some full piece of their life, effectively offering a window, an aperture, into a woman or a man.

When that icon is Aretha Franklin, the layers become more complicated, and more precious. How do you tell the story of a woman who had such agency over herself and her story in her lifetime? A woman who planned what she would wear on which days following her death. A woman who hand-selected the woman who would play her when her life became a film, because she knew it would, and that it was the right thing to do.

You start by inviting another icon, an in-the-making heroine, Tony Award® winner Liesl Tommy, to take up the charge. You have her lead a team of brilliant women, including Hudson and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson.

Then, by the time Tommy makes an onscreen cameo in “Respect” — her feature directorial debut — the film has long been swept up in the ferocious, melodic tumble of Hudson working to embody her hero. 
There’s a way that “Respect” somehow breaks the fourth wall — we feel the intimacy between director and camera and actress, the intimacy of the story as it unfolded in the past together with the nuanced and particular work of rendering it faithfully in the present, and then, finally, there’s the rich, wild layer of knowing what the filmmaking work means, and what the woman Aretha was meant to the women creating this version of a life on the screen.

Other gifts of this film? The introduction to the Muscle Shoals world. What this movie does that is so seldom done right is to show the authentic and optimistic facets of allyship. It’s never been a more needful thing, being reminded of how to accept offers of allyship on the one hand, and to find ways to be effective allies on the other.

In this film, relationships that could feel sentimental, or could seem patronizing, do not. They are human and dimensional. White boys can back up Aretha and get it right. But she’s gonna lead. And she gets to pick the backup.

Another gift: Aretha’s relationship with her sisters. Showing the village behind the star is a humanizing thing, and one that amplifies rather than diminishes her magnificence.

In truth, it’s the striking layers of sisterhood and solidarity, of men who must find their way onto Aretha’s page or get shown the door, it’s that heartbroken, emancipated, sexy, resilient Black female power that makes this movie sing.

Black female strength can be a complicated thing. It’s a taken-for-granted thing; a much-exploited thing; a fetishized thing; even, sometimes, a dehumanizing thing. Almost always a misunderstood thing. Watching Jennifer Hudson find Aretha’s power — that is what I will carry with me from this movie into the world.

Aretha Franklin’s many looks, embodied in “Respect” by Jennifer Hudson, tell the story of a woman putting aside trauma to take full charge of her life and image.

Near the start of the film, a young Aretha is sitting with her father, and he tells her, “You have a talent that is what people would call ‘genius.’” That was a lightning bolt. Young, Black giftedness being celebrated without qualification, or under the cloud of some white gaze, some hard thing. That was an early and instant flash of joy.

And they keep coming, these moments of representation. Of claiming agency and making choices. Of being unapologetically Black and then Blacker and still unafraid of what that could or might mean.
On its face, this movie is as straightforward a biopic as they come. Warm, with a tough emotional start, a rocky ascent, and a satisfying, uplifting resolution. We know how it ends before we sit down. Of course we do. It’s Aretha Franklin. We’re watching because we already love her. We’re watching because we know she picked Jennifer Hudson. We’re watching because we’re ready to live life alongside her again, if only for the space of the time of the film.

So, yes; on its face, this is a straightforward film. But in its bones, it is earthy and real and somehow even transcendent, a global and intergenerational story of Black female agency, dignity, and creative genius, virtues that extend past Aretha’s story and into the truth of the lives of the women who brought the film to life. This movie is (hopefully) a sign of the times, and it’s right on time.


It’s the striking layers of sisterhood and solidarity, of men who must find their way onto Aretha’s page or get shown the door, it’s that heartbroken, emancipated, sexy, resilient Black female power that makes this movie sing.


Transforming Into a Legend

Years before the film “Respect” was developed, Jennifer Hudson had been hand-picked to play Aretha Franklin — by Franklin herself.

Having long had her eye on Hudson, the “Queen of Soul,” who generally preferred stand-up comics be the opening act at her concerts, broke her own rule and asked the Chicago native to open for her at an April 2003 show. “That was a dream,” says Hudson.

A few years later, they met at Franklin’s New York home, and Franklin gave her an assignment: “She said, ‘It is you, Jennifer. I want you to play me,’” recalls Hudson.

But when the time came to shoot the film, Hudson says, “You can’t help but to be overwhelmed.”

Director Liesl Tommy says, “If you dare to take this story on, there are no half measures. Every single day on set it was evident that Jennifer completely understood that. She threw her whole self into the storytelling,” says Tommy.

That meant polishing Hudson’s already considerable musical skills, transforming her appearance and doing a deep-dive into Franklin’s history.

By Jordaan Sanford

Every song, every take, everything that’s on camera, Jennifer sings live. Our intention was that in the end it will be basically live vocals you’re hearing.

— Stephen Bray, executive music producer

Eschewing re-recording in a studio, Hudson and the filmmakers sought an unusual kind of authenticity. “Every song, every take, everything that’s on camera, Jennifer sings live,” explains executive music producer Stephen Bray. “Our intention was that in the end it will be basically live vocals you’re hearing.”

But to make that work, Hudson would have to accompany herself on piano, as Franklin did. So Hudson decided to fill a gap in her own musical training. “I felt as though I couldn’t attempt to play Aretha if I didn’t try to learn as much as I could about the piano.” With Tommy’s encouragement, she took lessons.

“I was like, ‘Aretha has sent me back to music school,’” Hudson says, with a laugh.

To further aid in capturing Franklin’s essence, the costume, hair and makeup departments worked on transforming Hudson with three decades’ worth of looks.

Tommy — whose extensive theater background instilled a “never compromise on specificity” philosophy — supported Hudson, who tackled the role with a similar mindset and full commitment. Hudson worked for months with choreographers, dialect, acting and movement coaches, but she says there are aspects of her performance that “can’t be coached.” Whatever the combination of preparation and inspiration, she impressed her fellow actors.

Her exhaustive preparation for the major role led to what Tommy calls a “transcendent” performance. The director calls Hudson’s portrayal of the extremes of pain and love that Franklin endured “extremely emotional and profound.”

Saycon Sengbloh, who plays the oldest of the Franklin siblings, calls Hudson’s performance “haunting.” There were several occasions that saw both cast and crew so moved by Hudson that they broke down in tears, according to writer Tracey Scott Wilson. “You could just see that Jennifer loved her and with every move she’s honoring her,” Wilson says.

Hudson believes Aretha’s voice can’t be duplicated, so she didn’t attempt to re-create the late singer’s style precisely. Instead, she tapped into Franklin’s inflections and key sounds.

Franklin’s hair — re-created under the supervision of Lawrence Davis — tells a story of its own, from a young girl pressing her tightly coiled strands with a hot iron because she was told that straight hair was “pretty,” to the glamorous beehives and afros that would become synonymous with the singer’s style.
Costume designer Clint Ramos created some 85 wardrobe changes for Hudson, from the silver sequins of Franklin’s 1968 Madison Square Garden shows to the chic bohemian caftans she donned in the 1970s.

“The storytelling in the costume changes probably taught me more about her than me doing research,” Hudson says. “I understand why she’s the queen with this on. It just taught me about her personality.”


Hand-selected to play Aretha Franklin by the late legendary singer herself, Jennifer Hudson rose to the challenge with unwavering dedication, even taking piano lessons to enhance her own musical training.

Elite Creatives Band Together

Liesl Tommy

Though “Respect” is Liesl Tommy’s feature film directorial debut, she has already garnered a reputation for her renowned stage work. Her accolades include a Tony Award® nomination for Best Direction of a Play for “Eclipsed,” making her the first Black woman to be nominated in the category. Her work on “Respect” started not with Aretha Franklin’s music, but with conceptualizing the story and creating a look book of African American photographers and painters as a reference point for its history. Tommy enlisted veteran theater collaborators to build the world of the film — from music consultants and choreographers to screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson. It was a challenging process, the success of which she attributes to “staying as grounded and clear as possible and being able to make creative changes on the spot and trusting that it will be as good as the other idea you had.”

TracEy Scott Wilson


Writer Tracey Scott Wilson was three days out from finishing a gig when she got the call asking if she wanted to pen the screenplay for “Respect.” Jumping at the opportunity, she dove into a file full of research and read all that she could on Aretha Franklin — soon realizing that the singer wasn’t born the Queen of Soul, but earned her throne over an arduous journey. Wilson, whose credits include “Fosse/Verdon” and “The Morning Show,” as well as four award-winning seasons of “The Americans,” developed the story in close collaboration with director Tommy, whom she’s known for two decades. Wilson says she made sure to work from a place of honesty — stepping out of the shoes of a fan to take on the perspective of a writer and doing more than “checking off boxes of a biopic.” In doing so, she says, she was able to honor Aretha and “tell the whole, whole story.”

By Trey Alston

With Black women leading the filmmaking, “Respect” reveals oft-overlooked aspects of Aretha Franklin’s life.

Ina Mayhew

Production Designer

Director Tommy says of Ina Mayhew: “I felt like it was really important to have the specific gaze of a Black woman with impeccable taste and experience as my partner in this film.” Mayhew, whose production design credits include more than 25 feature films, was determined to ensure the film was “authentic to [Franklin’s] world” to “highlight her life through the good and the struggle,” and that meant getting the details right.

Much of Franklin’s childhood home, where much of the action takes place, had to be invented, as there is only one, very small photograph of C.L. Franklin and his children at the house. “I like to use a lot of color, so it was a challenge to find patterns from room to room that didn’t clash with each other but each had a distinctive look. You want it to have that feeling of the time, but you don’t want it to feel faded.”

Jamie Hartman,

Jennifer Hudson, Carole King, with production by will.i.am


The songwriting team of Jamie Hartman, Jennifer Hudson and Carole King, plus producer will.i.am, came together to craft the original song “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” an ode to Franklin’s legacy. The idea came from an initial conversation at an activism event a couple of years ago when Hudson and Hartman ran into each other after Hudson performed. Once the pandemic hit, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall together. Hudson marvels about King, “When we first sat down talking about the concept of the song, it blew me away because she hadn’t even seen the film, but she was speaking from her personal experiences with Ms. Franklin.” Then will.i.am came onboard to produce Hudson’s live recording of the song, with his band accompanying her. Afterwards, the song was officially approved by Franklin’s family.

Jennifer Hudson Discusses Getting Aretha Franklin's Approval, and How Carole King Wrote 'Respect's' Original Song During a Pandemic
Watch Variety’s Jazz Tangcay Talk the Music of 'Respect' With Jennifer Hudson.


An Icon Forged by Women

Transforming Into a Legend

Elite Creatives Band Together