Men. Influential Men in a patriarchal society. They believe they exercise supreme control and hold the ultimate power to rule everyone. Children, Women, Slaves, and other belittle humans. Those who aren’t part of their cardinal realm. Men believe they tame and dictate a woman. They proudly decide what a woman should wear, what she should study, what man she should date, and what songs she should sing. But then, there comes a woman, an inspiring one indeed. Who tells you, you are not meant to be chained or to be dictated. You are here to bring about anarchy and disturb the peace when you can get no peace. Respect portrays the incredible journey of Aretha Franklin, who accomplished what she believed in, and Respect is a symbol of her beliefs.
Respect is a Musical Drama film that showcases the struggling life of American singer Aretha Franklin. The film is directed by debut director Liesl Tommy, while Jennifer Hudson gracefully plays Aretha Franklin on screen.
‘Respect’ Plot Summary
The screen fades in and Respect begins with the event of Detroit, 1952. A 10-year-old Aretha Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner) lives in her family home with her separated father, C.L. Franklin, a Baptist pastor of the local black community. Aretha and her two sisters, Erma (older) and Carolyn (younger) are nursed by a nanny in the absence of Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald).
Barbara left an authoritative and short-tempered husband, C.L., after constant brawl in their marriage and C.L.’s systematic efforts to control his wife’s singing career.
During Aretha’s childhood, C.L. arranges several social gatherings at his house where Aretha’s voice robs the hearts of men and women equally. She is already a star in the making. But Aretha’s voice and childhood are in extreme control of her father. In her rare visits to meet her daughters, Barbara advises Aretha not to become a slave of her father’s wishes.
“Your daddy doesn’t own your voice. Nobody does but God.”Barbara Siggers
An adolescent, Aretha fails to decipher her mother’s warning, but later it becomes a prominent pillar of her conflict. But before that rebellion, there is a tragedy waiting for her, something that will leave a long-lasting scar.
At one of her father’s parties, Aretha is raped by a young guest, Donald Burke. Under the fear of her Father, Aretha doesn’t reveal the acts of her molester, but soon the signs become inevitable. In the meantime, Aretha learns about her mother’s death. Soon after, Aretha gets to know about her pregnancy and gives birth to her first child, Clarence, at 12.
After the mishap, C.L. starts dictating Aretha’s life and she becomes a singer at her father’s sermon. A bumpy road ahead.
“Don’t let nothin’ come between you and your music.”James Cleveland
The Two Dictating Men in Aretha Franklin’s Journey
Aretha wanted to join the rallies of the Civil Rights Movement with her uncle, Martin Luther King. However, her ambitions were mercilessly disregarded by her authoritative father. At a party, Aretha met her future husband, Ted White, a local music producer. Ted tried to hire Aretha for one of his gigs but C.L. intervened and bitterly warned Ted to stay away from his daughter. By now, C.L.had understood Aretha’s ambition to sing record labels, and thus surprisingly, he took her to New York. Aretha made her first contract with Columbia Records. Executive John Hammond hired her, and she started singing jazz records, but only the ones her father chose for her.
By 1963, Aretha had many records to her name but not a single hit. The turning moment of her career arrived when she was harshly insulted by a family friend and singer, Dinah Washington. Dinah underlined Aretha’s reality and called her a little girl in her daddy’s living room. She persuaded Aretha to sing the songs she wanted to sing, not the ones her daddy wanted.
“Honey, find the song that suits you. That moves you. Until you do that, you ain’t going anywhere.”Dinah Washington
Finally, with some rebellious advice from Dinah and support by Ted White, Aretha fled her father’s command. She thought Ted would be different and thus began a relationship with him. Under Ted’s managerial command, Aretha left Columbia Records and signed a contract with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Aretha micromanaged the recording with musicians in Muscle Shoals and gave her first hit, “I Never Loved A Man.”
However, Ted’s possessiveness and demons soon kicked in, and he started commanding Aretha and physically assaulting her to tame her.
After a series of devastating incidents with Ted, Aretha realized that he was as toxic as her father. Both men wanted to tame her spirit and tell her what to do in life. Aretha ended her marriage with Ted and started dating her tour manager at Atlantic Records, Ken Cunningham. A vulnerable Aretha developed a bitter, arrogant shell around her personality to safeguard from commanding entities. She took an active part in the Civil Rights movement and started working like a workaholic. While she was arrogantly fighting the world, inside, her soul was melting down, bit by bit.
During a performance in Columbus, Georgia, a drunk Aretha fell off the stage. The embarrassing incident became a titular moment in her life. In her dream, she envisioned her late mother, Barbara. The latter took away an alcohol bottle from Aretha’s hand while Aretha murmured the Lord’s prayer. The following morning, Aretha decided to sober up and pay her homage to God, who gave her everything in life. She returned to her gospel roots and pitched a gospel album to John Hammond.
“I need the spirit. It has always gotten me through, and it will get me through again.”Aretha Franklin
Aretha thought her gospel album was the only way to cleanse her soul and silence her demons. On her persistence, an atheist, John agreed. Before the recording, her childhood mentor James Cleveland told Aretha that there was never a demon inside her. The pain was always the haunting memory of the past that she had been running away from. And her only outlet was her music to release that pain.
In the end, Aretha marvelously recorded her gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Los Angeles, in 1972. A film crew duly recorded the recording, and even Aretha’s Father attended it. She finally reconciled her relationship with C.L., who realized his dictatorial methods did no good to his children. The live recording of “Amazing Grace” became the best-selling album of Aretha Franklin’s career.
For an artist, it is never a direct deal. Their struggle is an intricately weaved voyage that is not understood when one is on it. Is it the frictional forces, the commanding men in Aretha’s life, that caused her pain? Or Is it her childhood trauma caused by her mother’s death and abuse by her molester? Or is it her pursuit to coin a single hit after several failed attempts? To be honest, every conflict plays drama in an artist’s life. One can try to segregate the influence of every detail. But in the end, a journey is a collection of hits-and-crashes whose sole objective is to carve a fascinating piece of art. Aretha Franklin was a piece of art.
In her lifetime, she continued to fight for social justice. She made it loud and clear that it isn’t only men who play a part in Civil Struggle. A woman can march in a rally and should and will do. While fighting for the rights of minorities, one should never forget about equality in their own family and own community. I guess that is one of the messages one gets from such a powerful film.
Respect is a musical biographical film directed by debut director Liesl Tommy. The film portrays the life and struggle of American singer Aretha Franklin.