The long-awaited Aretha Franklin biopic Respect is finally getting its moment in the spotlight after repeated delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MGM release opened Aug. 13, with critics praising Jennifer Hudson’s performance as the Queen of Soul, but questioning some aspects of the storytelling.
Hudson — who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls — is joined in the cast by fellow Oscar winner Forest Whitaker who commands attention as Franklin’s father, Reverend CL Franklin.
Marlon Wayans also delivers an impressive performance as Franklin’s ex-husband Ted White. Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess, Marc Maron, Kimberly Scott, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan and Mary J. Blige round out the main cast.
Before her death in August 2018, Franklin handpicked Hudson to portray her on the big screen.
The authorized feature film is directed by Tony-nominee Liesl Tommy, and follows Franklin’s life from a young girl singing in her father’s church, to becoming one of the most iconic figures in music.
The nearly 2 ½ hour film explores Franklin’s role in the civil rights movement and relives some of the challenges she faced throughout her life, including losing her mother at a young age, giving birth to two children by age 15, heavily drinking to dull the pain in her life, and dealing with a physically abusive husband.
One of the main criticisms is that the film tries to cover too much ground, instead of focusing on a specific chapter in Franklin’s life and bringing depth to the story.
Shawn Edwards, a nationally recognized film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City, Missouri, said the biopic would have been more satisfying with a different director at the helm.
“I don’t understand how a first time director landed the gig to tell Aretha Franklin’s life story,” Edwards told Urban Hollywood 411. “I firmly believe that her story belonged in the hands of a more established director. And that’s my problem [with the film]. I don’t care if the director was Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, it just needed to be a better director. It also needed a better script.”
Respect has a respectable 63 percent rating on review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with 93 reviews posted as of Friday afternoon.
Kathia Woods of The Philadelphia Tribune also took issue with the storytelling.
“It’s difficult to understand why the film feels so at ease telling the story of Ms. Franklin’s turbulent relationship with her first husband, Ted White. However, it is not as forthcoming about her becoming a mother twice before the age of 15,” Woods wrote in her review. “The Queen deserved better.”
Peter Rainer of KPCC, NPR Los Angeles, said about the film: “It’s just a series of tropes from biopics… You wonder why they felt the need to cover such a broad expanse of her life, and tick off all the moments in it in such clichéd ways.”
CNN critic Brian Lowry compared the film to the Emmy-nominated National Geographic miniseries Genius: Aretha, which stars Cynthia Erivo.
“Genius’ main advantage comes from the latitude to flesh out Franklin’s painful youth, from being sexually victimized to losing her mother, while Respect — even at nearly 2 ½ hours — races through those moments,” Lowry wrote in his review.
Despite those criticisms, the movie has gotten many positive reviews.
“Hudson hits all the right notes as a natural-born talent struggling to find her voice — and power — as a singer, a woman and an African American who deserves, and ultimately demands, respect,” wrote AARP Movies for Grownups critic Thelma Adams.
James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave the film three out of four stars, applauding the musical performances and the directing.
“[Liesl] Tommy achieves her goal of highlighting the courage and tenacity of the main character. Plus we get what amounts to a ‘greatest hits’ compilation as voiced by Jennifer Hudson,” Berardinelli noted.
Peter Travers of ABC News said Hudson hits all the right notes as Franklin.
“This by-the-numbers Aretha Franklin biopic is all about Jennifer Hudson doing Aretha proud. And does she ever. As the legendary Queen of Soul, Hudson does not, will not, cannot hit a wrong note, making Respect a tribute to both their radiant talents,” Travers wrote.
Dwight Brown of the National Newspaper Publishers Association also praised the film.
“What’s on view is so fascinating and the storyline so involving and consequential that when the film ends at Franklin’s famous church concert, you wish there was more,” Brown stated in his review. “The entire production is reverential, but Jennifer Hudson should be particularly proud. She has done her job. She should take a bow.”
Respect is now playing nationwide. Watch a clip from the film below.