The powerful new trailer for the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect is here, and it promises that the film will give fans insight into the makings of one of music’s most iconic stars. Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson is starring in the film as the Queen of Soul after being handpicked by the singer before she passed away in August 2018. She will be starring in the film alongside Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Mary J. Blige, and Skye Dakota Turner, who plays young Aretha. Hudson and the film’s director Liesl Tommy sat down for a virtual event to premiere the trailer on Tuesday, May 18, and talked about the behind-the-scenes work that it took to accurately tell the story of the singer’s rise to fame. The director is making her feature film debut with Respect, and it was important to not only celebrate Franklin’s artistry and iconic career but to also amplify her love for Black people and her involvement in the civil rights movement.
“When we did the deep dive into her life there were so many things I realized people didn’t know about her, that made her the powerful presence, the powerful voice that she was. One of those things was her commitment to civil rights. It’s so complex, it’s such an amazing representation of the American journey. It felt essential to me, especially in the moment we’re living in now, that you can be a superstar and you can still hold onto your integrity and to a political point of view. She was fearless that way.” The film is directed and written by Black women and having control of telling the story of one of the most legendary singers of our time was not something Tommy took lightly. She wanted to do right by Franklin by showing the full scope of who she was, on and off the stage.
“I pitched the journey of becoming Aretha Franklin as we know her. All of the parts of her life that were so powerful: her faith, her relationship with her family, her journey from a person who sang standards to a person who sang her own music, finding that authentic voice,” the director said. “We have been at the mercy of the white male gaze telling us who we are for a very long time. She always knew who she was and she always loved Black people and I felt like this movie was going to be about that as well. It was going to be a movie where you could see all shapes, colors, dimensions, and nuances of this Black woman. Not just somebody strong, somebody sassy, all the things that we’ve been told that’s the only part of us that’s interesting. She can be fragile, she can be scared, she can be unsure and she can be strong, and she can be powerful, and she can be intimidating. But she is a human being, a woman who had so much to her, and that to me was the part I was interested in. The complexity.”
Tommy added: “I was fascinated by her public persona. I was interested to know what was happening underneath that public persona of control and reserve. I was interested in the things that made her who she was, the formative experiences, the things that changed her. The moments where she grew because that’s what we are all trying to do every day is grow as people and getting to see the icons struggle and develop is to me where the riches are.”
During the event, Hudson shared that this project has been in the works for quite some time. “We originally sat down now almost 20 years ago. It was right after I won my Oscar for Dream Girls. We met in New York and we had a talk about it and there was no script at the time but she wanted to meet with me and obviously, we stayed in contact after that. It was when I was on Broadway when she called me and said, ‘I’ve made my decision and it’s you, young lady, who I want to play me but don’t you tell a soul!’ and I was like, ‘Yes, ma’am. I won’t,’’’ Hudson said. “So I just sit back and think about how much of a blueprint that she’s been in my life and in my career. But it wasn’t until being in the thick of things that I got to even understand her that much more for myself as a person not necessarily as, ‘Oh my God, that’s Aretha Franklin, the icon or The Voice or this or that song,’ but to be able to learn of the individual while developing the character. It makes me think back to our conversations that we would have and I realize while filming and doing research, she taught me more about life while teaching me about her life. What she was speaking about, she was speaking from her real-life experiences and that didn’t hit me till later. She was really schooling me in those moments based off of her experiences.”
The two singers have so much in common, but Hudson believes that their faith in God is what truly connects them, saying: “I am a child of God born in the church. It’s so natural, I feel like that is one of our closest connections is our faith and having that background coming from the church, which I completely understood instantly. Even for myself, I was able to draw from that for the character and for myself to lead me through such a project. It’s always the base for me and obviously, I truly believe it was the base for her as well.”
During the chat, the director revealed that Hudson spent six months prior to being on set preparing for the role, including learning how to play the piano, studying all of Franklin’s music as well as her mannerisms. “First of all, let me say, you ain’t just going to wake up one day and think you’re going to be Aretha. Do not be fooled. I said Aretha sent me back to music school. I am in Aretha music school so I still get on the piano every day and I feel as though, as an actor, if I’m going to portray someone who played, especially to the extent that she did, ‘Jennifer, you better get over here on this piano and figure out something!’” the singer said. “I still do the piano, I’ve gotten a bit further, I will never be on Ms. Franklin’s level, let me be clear. As far as vocally, I remember her saying, ‘Jennifer has a very clear sound.’ But it’s like a balance, I felt as though it’s more of her influence on me in it and my interpretation of it than trying to mimic Aretha because it’s only one Ms. Franklin. How about I let it be the influence of her through me and how she helped shape my artistry throughout the years?”
“I’m an ‘80s baby. We were born in an era where we are by far more outspoken and take up more space in the room whereas back then, women didn’t have the same space and they didn’t have the capacity to speak up and be vocal so her mannerisms were completely opposite of mine,” she added. “Aretha was very subtle and so to be able to snatch it back and be expressive and channel someone and their expressions in that way without words or without being so big expressively, that was a challenge in that way so it took quite a bit of studying to be able to get that down.”
As the number of vaccinated people in the United States continues to increase and movie theaters are starting to open up, Hudson and Tommy both believe this movie is meant to be seen on the big screen. “I’m a filmmaker and I made the film to be seen on the big screen. We chose lavish locations, the costumes are lush, and the sound to me, we labored over the design of that sound so that it all has to live up to Ms. Franklin. She embodied excellence and taste and so our movie has to live in that same place. There’s something glorious about her journey and I don’t know about y’all but I need a little glory in my life right now after COVID,” the director said. “I want to share the highs and lows, I want to share joy, I want to share music with a community. We have been isolated. With movies, you can be in community and have a shared experience that can transform you that can be transcendent. And that’s what she did, she was transcendent. And I feel like Jennifer is a transcendent presence on that screen and I feel like people will be healed by this film.”
Hudson agrees and is looking forward to watching it in theaters herself. “It’s Aretha Franklin! And we all love her. She’s a world treasure, not a national treasure, a world treasure. What better way to bring people back to the theaters than through the queen of soul?” she said. “We can all come together, your children love her, your momma loves her, your grandparents so take the whole family and everybody can get together and it’s something we’ve all been waiting for, including myself. Not only to share with the world but to be a part of and for everyone to see. It’s the perfect film in the perfect way to go back and head back to the theaters and get your popcorn ‘cause I’m gonna have mine too.”
Check out the Respect trailer and some stills from the movie below. The Aretha Franklin biopic will hit theaters on Aug. 13.