HIGHER CULTURE: In New Biopic "Respect," Aretha's Faith in God Shines Through Glamour

I thought I had it all figured out. In fact, even before I went to the theater to catch a matinee of “Respect” this week, I’d convinced myself that I knew exactly how to go about writing a review of it.

These days, it’s easy enough to pull up all of facts and figures you might want to online about movies: what the box office grosses were, how many Oscars and Golden Globes they won, what the critics did or didn’t say about them, et cetera. So, that was one, possible route: a retrospective of musician biographies, up on the silver screen.

Another angle was to compare “Respect,” which stars Jennifer Hudson as the late Aretha Franklin and covers the time period from her childhood in the 1950s to the early 1970s, with what might be my least favorite biopic ever, 2004’s “Ray.”

Actually, a brief mention of it might be instructional, after all. The film, with actor Jamie Foxx portraying R’n’B great Ray Charles, was nothing more than blatant, paint-by-numbers Oscar bait, containing the requisite grab bag of cheap ploys, transparently designed to pull viewers’ heartstrings and empty their tissue boxes. As the IMDb link above shows, it did take home some of those golden statuettes — but to what purpose? “Ray” left me (and I’m sure many other movie goers) feeling ripped off by making a promise it couldn’t deliver on.

I’m here to tell you now, readers, that I was wrong to prejudge “Respect.” But it wasn’t my fault; it’s entirely the fault of the people who created the film’s marketing strategy. And sadly, it’s something that Hollywood has a tendency to get wrong time and time again.

Take a look at the trailer:

What do you see? Aretha’s glamourous outfits and hairstyles and the massive audiences she was playing to, while performing some of her biggest hits. But there’s no hint of the pitch darkness that engulfs the singer — or the light of God’s grace which shines through the soul of this motion picture.

Because of that, there’s no conceivable reason why this movie wasn’t depicted to potential audience members in a way that appeals to a Christian audience hungering for depictions of light triumphing over dark.

The ensemble cast of the new film, which includes Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, and a talented, unknown singer named Skye Dakota Turner as a young Aretha, lights up the screen whenever momentous choices on that count have to be made.

Now, about Jennifer Hudson. Hudson doesn’t so much impersonate Franklin as channel the pain and deep hurt that the latter dealt with in her life. But the film makes no secret of the fact that the singer also leaned on her faith in God to overcome her “demons.” Now, that’s a term several characters use in the movie, and it would be a spoiler to give away what that real-life trauma was (another review I read did so). But I’ll say this much: it’s something that would emotionally destroy most people for the rest of their lives.

Aretha, as shown in “Respect,” was a proud woman of God who learned to listen to that still, small voice inside that speaks to all Christians when we are tempted to do the easy thing — instead of the right thing — when it matters.

If there is a misstep in the film, I think, it was one, minor subplot which includes praise for radical, domestic terrorist Angela Davis.

There’s one movie I thought of with a similar tone to “Respect.” It’s Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” (2018): a powerful, little independent movie that — unlike “Ray” — richly deserved to walk home with its Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay awards. I recommend watching both film together, because they exhibit the same bravery in two ways.

First, they’re real in the way that films about the past don’t have to be — especially in our current, racially-charged environment. In the films, there are white, Southern characters who are shown to be every day, good people. They aren’t racists.

The second thing that ties the films together in their excellence is the honest way it deals with the male-female relationship. And the nature of good and evil. Evil is treated as a very real thing in the newer film, in the world we live in. But it would be so easy to portray several of the characters here as “bad,” when we know most people are rarely all bad or all good. And the possibility of redemption is ever present. Even for a wretch like you (and me).

After you watch the movie (which I hope I’ve persuaded you to do), you’ll want to listen the 18-track “Respect” original soundtrack (you can find it wherever you listen to music; here’s the Spotify link).

Essential Viewing verdict: “Respect” is possibly one of the best musician biopics you’ll see that affirms a Christian worldview — and it’s worth the effort to see it in a theater, if you can. Though, keep in mind that (because of some of the themes), it’s meant for mature audiences.

Related: “Higher Culture” Aside: There’s a Reason People Still Show Aretha ‘Respect’


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