Jennifer Hudson, anointed to play Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’: ‘I’m still taking it in’

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in "Respect," out in movie theaters August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

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Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in "Respect," out in movie theaters August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

The film, shot largely in Georgia, finished shooting right before the pandemic with the release delayed an entire year.

Despite the generational gap, the affinity between Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson is multiplicative.

Both embody a gospel-infused R&B vocal style. Both have suffered trauma most people wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemies. Both have faced unflattering public scrutiny.

It’s no wonder when Franklin met Hudson, she felt an instant connection and anointed Hudson to play her in the Franklin family-approved big-budget biopic film “Respect,” which comes out in theaters August 13.

And for Hudson, shooting this movie largely in metro Atlanta in 2019 into early 2020 was a culmination of years of wishing and wanting and preparation. The pandemic delayed the release by a year.

“I still sit here and wonder, ‘Did I do everything? What more could I have done?” said Hudson, 39, in an interview at the Four Seasons in Atlanta earlier this month while wearing a shirt with Franklin’s image embossed on it. “I still sit with that... I still do my piano lessons. I’m a fan. I still listen to her music. I still look at footage.”

In 2004, she performed “Baby, I Love You,” a Franklin song, on “American Idol.” Later, Franklin sought her out at a big concert event. After Hudson’s breakthrough success in the film “Dreamgirls,” Franklin told her that she would love Hudson to play her in a future biopic. Unfortunately, Franklin died in 2018 before the film production was to begin.

The movie features many of Franklin’s early hits including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

“Respect” reveals some of Franklin’s early traumas, such as losing her mom at such a young age and being raped by older men and having two children. Her powerful preacher dad C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) shaped her to be a professional singer. She went against his wishes at age 19 and married an abusive manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans.) The film covers her struggling years at Columbia Records and her breakthrough years at Atlantic under producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) up until her hugely successful gospel album in 1972.

ExploreAretha Franklin biopic ‘Respect’ has deep Atlanta ties
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Marlon Wayans stars as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect" out August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Marlon Wayans stars as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect" out August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

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Marlon Wayans stars as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect" out August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Here are some highlights from the interview:

You just went to Detroit for the screening?

Hudson: I got to meet the [Franklin] family. That was my favorite part.

Had you seen the movie by that point in a theater?

Hudson: By myself, but not with a crowd.

What was it like at the screening?

Hudson: I can’t do it yet. I was there. I met [the family] and I introduced it. But I left. I can’t take it yet.

That’s a lot. You’re in almost every scene. It’s not like “Sex and the City.”

Hudson: It takes some bracing to get through that.

What’s your earliest memory of Aretha’s music?

Hudson: I don’t remember a time without her. I feel like she’s always present. I don’t know that very moment when she crashed into my life. Probably growing up in church singing her version of “Amazing Grace.” She’s a blueprint in gospel and the church. I didn’t realize until I did research on the film and listened to her ‘Amazing Grace’ album, that, wait a minute, that’s where a lot of our church songs came from for our church choir ― from Aretha Franklin.

It really felt good the way the movie closed there [with Franklin singing ‘Amazing Grace.’}. Did that feel right to you when you read the script?

Hudson: Especially when you consider who it is. That was her base, her roots: the church. So to start it in the church and end it in the church, I don’t think it could have been a better beginning or ending.

At the time, she had depression and alcohol issues. Maybe today, we deal with them with therapy, with rehab. That wasn’t all that readily available back then? Her sources of comfort were limited in the 1960s.

Hudson: That’s why she relied on her faith. That’s always been her blueprint as is mine as well.

It seems like you have connected with her on multiple levels. There were reasons you guys connected.

Hudson: I discovered more and more while filming. I felt she knew so much more than me obviously. Were we paralleled in certain ways? It was helpful while filming.

Maybe God brought the two of you together?

Hudson: That’s what it feels like! Someone said it’s like a spiritual agreement or something.

What was your meeting like after “Dreamgirls” with her?

Hudson: When we met, she said, “Are you shy or something?” I said, “I am, sitting at the table with the Queen of Soul!” It was crazy amazing.

When did you start feeling comfortable with her and see her as a human being?

Hudson: It took a while to break the barrier... I did a lot of tributes for her over the years. There was one time I did it, I don’t remember what year but it was a BET celebration honoring her. She crashed my rehearsal. It was supposed to be a surprise. She came into the rehearsal and everybody stopped. She just sat there and we just sat and talked to each other. That’s when I saw the light, that this is just a beautiful human being.

What do you think she saw in you?

Hudson: I wish I knew but it was always my dream to play her. I can’t forget that as well. It’s a lot to take in to the point I’m still taking it in.

They were working on the film before she passed. Would it have been any different if she were still around?

Hudson: Who is to say? I think she would have been there. I never thought about that until you said that.

Did you feel at times that she was with you in spirit while you were shooting the film?

Hudson: Yes. Many, many moments. Even now. I feel like she comes to me in different ways, especially during the church scenes on set. You can feel her presence.

Did she say anything?

Hudson: Just a feeling. I will always feel her encouragement. That’s what got me through it to do it because it was a huge undertaking. I’m glad to have her blessing to do it.

She’s a very complicated woman, very private. While a lot of stuff you reveal in the film she didn’t go out of the way to talk about at the time it was happening. She wanted everyone to know she was a great singer and her family life was great. You can relate to that right? You have reporters all the time trying to turn you into a puddle of tears?

Hudson: All the time. What they need to know is people are human. And we all have a life. It’s something that comes with the territory.

The late ‘60s is different from today.

Hudson: I wasn’t born at the time but I can’t really say.

It was probably easier for her to stay private.

Hudson: There definitely wasn’t any Internet.

TMZ wasn’t tracking her down. That moment in Columbus, Georgia, when she fell off the stage. In 2021, that would have been a YouTube video.

Hudson: Or a meme.

What was the most challenging song to sing of hers?

Hudson: All of them. It’s all iconic music. It’s treasured by everyone. How do you touch that? What do you do with it?

caption arrowCaption
(l-r.) Brenda Nicole Moorer stars as Brenda Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect," shot in metro Atlanta and out in theaters August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

(l-r.) Brenda Nicole Moorer stars as Brenda Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect," shot in metro Atlanta and out in theaters August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

caption arrowCaption
(l-r.) Brenda Nicole Moorer stars as Brenda Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in "Respect," shot in metro Atlanta and out in theaters August 13, 2021. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

The Muscle Shoals scene [where Franklin builds the song “I Never Loved a Man”] in 1967 is such a classic moment. The scene where they organically develop the song, is that how you develop your own songs?

Hudson: That’s the cool part about this. To keep it authentic to her artistry. She’s a musical genius, right? I don’t know whether to call us actors or musicians first. Even the extras in the film, they played instruments. So it was approached in a real musician-like way, like how we would organically do it. At times in films, those things are overlooked because it’s not musicians doing it. But in this, you have real, authentic musicians doing it.

I got to see it in a movie theater. It feels like a movie that needs to be seen in a theater with full sound on a big screen. They could have stuck this on Netflix or Amazon.

Hudson: No! You can’t do the Queen of Soul like that! I feel she deserves to have a platform like this. She brought so many people. It’s best to honor her by getting together and celebrating her life and legacy.

It’s like a concert. Why do people still go to concerts?

Hudson: It has that appeal to it. It has the element of a live concert and elements of a film as well.

You went to a lot of venues, some around here in Atlanta right? Any particular favorite venues?

Hudson: The Fox Theatre.

You’ve performed there before, haven’t you?

Hudson: It was good to go back in a different way, re-experience it. Many great churches as well. Just being in Atlanta was nice but I didn’t get out much because I was filming and stuck in the ‘60s.

Did you like the outfits?

Hudson: That’s an understatement! I love, love the costumes. Clint Ramos did an outstanding job. Everybody. Hair, makeup. My favorite hair was the beehive. I did over 83 costume changes.

A lot of people who know her music may not know what a social activist she was. How did it feel to portray that aspect of her life, getting to spend time with Martin Luther King Jr.?

Hudson: It was so informative for me. I didn’t know the depth of their friendship. He was like an uncle to her. They are from the same era but to know of their paths crossing, King’s relationship with her father. It’s like, “Wow!” It puts it in context.

How do you hope people think of her after seeing the film?

Hudson: I know we have a respect for Aretha Franklin, but by the time you get to the end of the film, I want you to have a newfound respect for her. To acknowledge the human being gives it so much power and substance. Those songs came from life and experience. That’s where her life and soul came from.


WHERE TO WATCH

“Respect,” in area theaters starting August 13.

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