RESPECT: A biopic of a larger-than-life Aretha Franklin [Film Review]
Dinga Sikwebu | Amandla 77 | August/September 2021
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As part of a whirlwind tour of the United States after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in June 1990. For the welcoming rally and to back the town’s renowned pianist and singer Aretha Franklin, the city’s reception committee assembled a 2,000 strong choir, Voices of Freedom. 50,000 people filled up the Motor City’s Tiger stadium. After musical items, in his speech Mandela revealed how while incarcerated and when relaxation of prison regulations made it possible to possess radio transistors, as prisoners they listened to Aretha Franklin and Motown music. Mandela’s comment could have been a polite gesture meant as a gratitude to a city that was the epicentre of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign. But judging by radio playlists it is unquestionable that from the 1960s to this day, Aretha remains a musical big name in South Africa.
Since her passing away in August 2018, there is renewed interest in the life of one of the most enduring voices of our time. In March this year, Disney/National Geographic’s television series “Genius” featured an eight-part instalment on Aretha. The installation came on the footsteps of the recent release of Sydney Pollack’s delayed documentary, Amazing Grace.
Recently, a new movie Respect opened in cinemas locally and across the globe. The film which is a cinematic portrayal of Aretha Franklin’s life, weaves the singer’s biography into her musical career between 1952 and 1972. The biopic’s arc follows the predictable Hollywood three-part format – the first part being a meteoric rise, followed by personal fall, with salvation as the denouement of the film.
The film opens with a boisterous Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin (Forest Whitaker) of the New Bethel Baptist Church dragging his 10 year old daughter Aretha out of bed so that she can sing for his guests. The movie reaches its climax when Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) returns to her church roots in 1972 and records live “Amazing Grace” at the Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles.
Aretha struggled to make a breakthrough when her father signed her as a jazz artist with Columbia Records in 1960. She turned to soul music when she landed a contract with Atlantic Records six years after she became a professional musician. The shift to soul music and to sounds which she described as being from her heart, made Aretha an instantaneous megastar. In her first two years with the new recording company, Aretha released five platinum albums whose singles topped R&B and pop charts. In her first year at Atlantic, she became the 1967 Billboard’s top female singer.
At the height of a successful career, turmoil erupted in Aretha’s life. Battling the pain of sexual abuse inflicted when she was a child and losing her mother when she was 11, the soul star turned to alcohol to dull her ache. The addiction to booze threatened to wreck her musical vocation and put her on a collision course with her sisters Erma and Carolyn, who were her backing singers. The return to her church beginnings – symbolised by the recording in 1972 – is what saves her.
Patriarchy and civil rights
The movie also has some subplots. Firstly, it is Aretha’s struggle against patriarchy and control by men including her father, the recording industry moguls, and her abusive first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who acted as her manager. Having initially portrayed Aretha as a docile woman, the script shows how she later takes on patriarchal tendencies that attempt to put her down.
Secondly, there is the theme of the civil rights movement. Besides her father being the movement’s leader, a young Aretha toured with Martin Luther King Jr. and sang at civil rights’ rallies. King was also at the celebration where Detroit’s mayor James Cavanaugh declared 16th February to be Aretha Franklin Day. Although other biographers dispute the accuracy of the fact, Respect has Aretha singing “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral after the civil rights leader was assassinated in April 1968. As the film depicts, at this point and against her father, Aretha began to question the tactics of the civil rights movement and came out in support of militants such as Angela Davis.
The storyline of luminaries who battle personal demons that threaten to topple their stardom is not only trite but can be limiting. Clearly, the scriptwriters’ decision to focus in the biopic on Aretha’s life from 1952 to 1972 is a device to force a larger-than-life character in a rise-fall-salvation arc. But Aretha’s life went beyond the 1972 bracket. Flashing up her post-1972 achievements before end credits does not adequately compensate for the arbitrary carving up of her life.
Respect also suffers from other problems associated with biopics as an art form. In an introductory chapter in a book on the biopic as a genre in contemporary film culture, film studies academic Belén Vidal criticises the form and its presentation of being “often cavalier in its handling of historical fact”. Similar to other film genres from the same source, Hollywood biopics are part of a larger mass public culture aimed at manufacturing American national identity through use of “common myths and historical memories”. Crucial instruments in the formation of national identity are “selective remembering and forgetting”. Respect can in some ways be guilty on both counts.
On the charge of glibly dealing with history, how Respect treats the radicalisation of Aretha in the 1960s is good enough evidence. The biopic opts for the simplistic analysis that traces the radicalisation of the civil rights movement to the assassination of its leader, Martin Luther King Jr. According to more recent studies, the years 1967-8 were turning points in the struggle for Black people in the US. In his book Escape from Detroit, Paul Kersey describes how, in June 1967, Aretha’s home city experienced a five day riot that left 43 people dead. In an article to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Detroit riots, the New York Times reported that “there were nearly four dozen riots and more than 100 smaller cases of civil unrest in the US in 1967”. In her new book America on Fire, historian Elizabeth Hinton records 1 951 distinct riots across the US between 1968 and 1972.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson declared the “War on Crime” and sent police into Black communities. The response was widespread rioting against police brutality in a number of communities across different towns and states. Watching the film, one will have no inkling that this was the context in which Aretha’s hits such as Think and Young, Gifted and Black were produced. Regardless of the erasure in the movie, the environment created by the urban rebellions gave the music currency and appeal.
On the charge of utilising “selective remembering and forgetting”, the silent note on the war in Vietnam is a good illustration of how the production is involved in an exercise to forge fictional national identity. When they watch Respect, viewers will not be aware that, as Aretha belted out her award-winning tunes, the sounds of American tanks and guns were drowning pleas of Vietnamese people for self-determination and that a big anti-war movement in the US had been born.
A musician of the world
For their book We gotta get out of this place: the soundtrack of the Vietnam War, Doug Bradley and Craig Werner conducted interviews with men who served in the war in Vietnam. The two authors found that the Black soldiers were listening to music by soul musicians such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Among the extensive interviews in the book are words of a ground radio repairman, Mike Laska, “Aretha Franklin was big. Respect, how that hit home”. Aretha’s songs and lyrics spoke to the racism in the army, the sadness that war brought about, the confusion and the anger that built up as the invasion dragged on. In numerous interviews, Aretha confirms that she recorded I Say a Little Prayer for You in 1968, with the thought of young men conscripted to fight in Vietnam uppermost in her mind.
Except for scenes of Aretha appearing in Europe, Respect is silent on how the singer’s music travelled to places like South Africa and how it was received outside of the US. One thought that the South African-born director Liesl Tommy would bring to the attention of the scriptwriters is the fact that Aretha was not only an American celebrity but a musician of the world. Despite these drawbacks, Respect gives a glimpse of how music-making requires trust from all those involved – from composition, to studio work and on the bandstand.
The biopic is also a must-watch movie for those who have an interest in the making of cosmopolitan Black cultures in the second half of the 20th century. The music is great and Hudson and her accompanying musicians treat the Queen of Soul’s songs gracefully and with abundant respect.
Dinga Sikwebu is a Johannesburg-based writer.
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Dinga’s review is informative and well researched. As a person who has watched a documentary of Aretha’s life, and as my family still listens to and appreciates her music, we are grateful for this critique. Dinga gives a perspective that is thought provoking…he sets a historical context.