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First look: See exclusive photos of Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’ biopic

  • June 29, 2020

More than a decade after Aretha Franklin began talking up a movie about her life, we’ve got the first glimpse of images from the forthcoming “Respect” — with handpicked star Jennifer Hudson as a vintage Queen of Soul.

This first batch of stills, included here, comes on the heels of a Sunday night video teaser, released after Hudson’s performance on the BET Awards. It follows a teaser-trailer that hit in December.

The new images show the film’s portrayal of Franklin’s distinctive glittering fashions during the mid-’60s and, later, her trendsetting Afro.

“Respect,” set for limited release Christmas Day ahead of nationwide distribution, also stars Forest Whitaker (father Rev. C.L. Franklin), Audra McDonald (mother Barbara Franklin) and Marlon Wayans (husband-manager Ted White). Mary J. Blige, Heather Headley, Tate Donovan and Marc Maron also have roles.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in the MGM film Respect.

The MGM biopic set out to chronicle the Detroit singer’s life from childhood through the 1960s, a time of career highs, artistic innovation and interpersonal drama for Franklin — and wider social upheaval around her.

Now it’s arriving in a year marked by a fresh gush of energy in pursuit of racial justice.

Official movie poster for Respect, the forthcoming Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson.

“It’s incredible how much it resonates with what’s happening right now, which makes it even that much more powerful,” Hudson told the Detroit Free Press by email. “I almost can’t even gather the words, but it’s as if a voice from the past is speaking up right now, which just shows how timeless her music was and is.”

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father the Rev. C.L. Franklin in the MGM film Respect.

“Respect” is the first feature film for director Liesl Tommy, a theater veteran who called the project “one of the great joys of my life.”

“I got to immerse myself in the world of my biggest hero and creative influence, Aretha Franklin,” Tommy said. “Her music, creativity and journey is endlessly inspiring, and to be given the great privilege of bringing her legacy to the big screen was utterly thrilling and humbling.”

Tommy and Hudson described the film as a passion project for both cast and crew, who came in with a “shared love for Aretha and a dedication to honor her,” as Hudson put it.

“We all felt we were making something so special. We all knew we were being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tommy said. “Everyone sang live on set, so every day I watched the crew just be seduced by the talent.”

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in Respect.

Hudson was famously chosen by Franklin to play the part, several years before the Queen of Soul’s 2018 death. 

It was a responsibility Hudson said she took seriously. The Chicago-born singer-actress was struck by something McDonald told her on set one day: “It’s a heavy life to portray.” Hudson said she channeled her own life experience, which has included its share of heavy tragedy, to embody Franklin.

“I had to go into such a deep place to be able to do it at times, and it helped me to be able to pull from my life and it made me understand that much more why she chose me,” Hudson said. “Not only musically, but I felt as though (Franklin) thought, ‘You know what, she’ll be able to carry that story of my life.'”

The period wardrobe also helped Hudson gain insight into Franklin, she said, with the fashions telling their own stories. The actress was especially galvanized by an outfit — gold dress and fur coat — for a birthday scene set in New York’s Rainbow Room.

Marlon Wayans (center) as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect, in a scene set at New York's Rainbow Room.

“I was like, ‘This is why they call her the queen!'” Hudson said. “You felt the majesty, the royalty. … There was a presence in it. Her wardrobe was just another one of the ways she expressed herself — through her style, through her presence, through her music.”   

The limited Christmas run will be followed by wide release in early 2021. The movie was scheduled for an October premiere until the coronavirus pandemic disrupted Hollywood schedules.

“Respect” was shot mostly in Atlanta and New York, with some establishing exteriors filmed in Detroit. Shooting started in October and wrapped just before the coronavirus outbreak halted productions across the U.S. in March.

Jennifer Hudson (left) as Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington in the MGM film Respect.

Tommy said the shooting was “magical” but post-production brought challenges. The director worked alone in her Harlem apartment during editing — while New York City flared into a COVID-19 hot zone — and said the team, including editor Avril Beukes, “all worked to keep each other sane.”

“During the darkest days, when friends were diagnosed with COVID or when people I knew died, being able to immerse myself in Ms. Aretha’s life and focus on Jennifer’s astounding performance and transcendent singing, or Marlon and Forest’s performances, kept me in a space of joy and faith,” Tommy said. “And that is what I hope the film will do for everyone, honestly.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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