The first time Jennifer Hudson stepped into the spotlight paying tribute to Aretha Franklin was at the 2014 BET Honors Ceremony with the Queen of Soul sitting in the front row watching a talented powerhouse singing her iconic track ‘Rock Steady’.
Rumour has it that it was at that moment, when the performance ended with a thunderous applause, that Franklin decided that Hudson would play her in any and every film made on her life. However, Hudson herself said in an interview that it was much earlier that Franklin chose her. In fact, it was in 2007 itself right after she won her Oscar for ‘Dreamgirls’. But to Hudson, the BET performance was the audition that sealed the deal.
Hudson recently said that it was perhaps their personal losses that united them as two grieving kindred spirits. In her lifetime, Franklin endured an abusive husband, several setbacks in the early years of her career and never quite got over the loss of her father, Pastor CL Franklin. It was also what perhaps pushed her towards alcohol and depression later on in life.
Hudson herself knows a thing or two about personal losses, losing her mother Darnell Donerson and brother Jason, who were found fatally shot in 2008 inside the house she grew up in on Chicago’s South Side.
“In that moment, it clicked with me like, ‘Is this what she saw in me?’” the ‘American Idol’ alum told InStyle magazine. “Because we parallel in so many ways through our life stories and the things we’ve been through and experienced.”
It would be another four years since that BET performance when talk of a possible biopic would come to life, unfortunately, the same year the 76-year-old Grammy winner succumbed to pancreatic cancer on August 16, 2018.
Liesl Tommy, a South African-American director and activist, who became the first woman of colour to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play (for directing the Broadway production of Danai Gurira’s ‘Eclipsed’) was finally selected for the job.
‘Respect’, which is set to release almost three years to the day Franklin died, is already generating an Oscar buzz for Hudson’s grandiose performance that is reminiscence of the life the Queen of Soul led during her reign in music.
To capture her life story, warts and all, would not have been an easy task for any seasoned director or actor, but both Tommy and Hudson rose to the challenge with amazing grace and moments of soul-searching on their parts. As the film releases in UAE cinemas on August 19, we chat with director Tommy over Zoom about the biopic and whether her own childhood through apartheid influenced the film in any way.
Let’s get the heavy question about the way: do you think you’ve done justice to Aretha Franklin’s story?
I don’t know if I’ve done justice to her story but I’ve made a film that I am very proud of.
Trying to capture the life story of the Queen of Soul into a two-hour film seems a gargantuan task.
At times I did think I was a crazy person for taking a film like this on. But honestly, every single day from the minute I was hired, I meditated on what it should be and what doing justice to her legacy was about.
As an artist, all we can do is open up the channels and connect with the spirits and trust our guts. What it is to be an artist is to like invite in forces. It’s what we do and I needed to feel deeply that I told a version of her story that she would be proud of.
What was the initial thought process when you were approached for the film?
I got a call saying the studio and the producers wanted to speak to me about directing the Aretha Franklin film. That was in the fall of 2018. It was just a meeting, but when I went in there, I knew exactly what the movie should be. I knew what journey I wanted to tell, what the arc was. I knew that it should start and end with her face.
I personally don’t love birth-to-death biopics. I think you end up flattening out the story just to get everything in. I was much more interested in telling the story of a woman’s journey, an emotional journey, one of self-discovery. I wanted to explore all the things that made her Aretha Franklin because I felt it was so relatable to many of us.
Which is why I wanted to start in childhood and finish at age 30 with that ‘Amazing Grace’ concert of hers [which was recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles]. And they [the studio] were like wow, this is very comprehensive. They came back to me in a few weeks saying they would like me to come on.
Did you ever meet Aretha Franklin in her lifetime?
I did not. But I believe she would have liked the film. I did so much research and I really believe there would be parts that would be hard for her to watch but she would feel we honoured her experiences and it’s a very holistic story.
How difficult is it to put together someone’s life story?
I felt like I shot two films. The editing process was the hardest thing I have ever done. There were some scenes that had incredible performances which are now not in this film because in the editing process, the film starts to tell you who it is. And there’s a very humbling moment when you have to say to yourself, I never thought I could let that scene go but the scene doesn’t work anymore in the story. When you are writing it and deciding what’s going in the script, it’s a tug of war of wonderful anecdotes.
Can you share any scenes that were you sad to let go?
One thing we shot that we absolutely loved was Jennifer Hudson singing ‘Dr Feelgood’, which was so fun and sexy and cool. She sounded amazing and I loved how I shot it. But it was one of those scenes that we had to lose because there were other scenes that just felt more powerful and on point with the storytelling.
Did her family, friends or her estate participate in the filmmaking process?
They were very respectful in the process. I feel very grateful that they trusted me. There’s so much love that they have for her. They were all raised in an artist’s world and once when I met with them, I never thought they were second guessing me. They came to set, it was all beautiful.
It’s wonderful how you chose not to gloss over Aretha Franklin’s life in the film. How important was it to show the good and the flaws?
There’s two things to know: Aretha Franklin always kept it very real. There was no nonsense about her. And to me that felt like that her story also needed to be very real. And the other thing is, I asked myself how does one become the Queen of Soul and what is soul? And the only way you can become a singer like her is possessing what she had, a special skill with which she could communicate emotions in her songs. And that emotion was hard because she had real experiences that she was able to turn into emotional storytelling through her music. So to gloss over those tough life lessons would be to short-change the great artistry that she achieved.
People tried to control her every step on the way — her father, her husband, Columbia Records. Aretha Franklin stood her ground in the face of these storms. What does that say about her as a woman?
At that time, even now, the patriarchy is real. Men look at us as vessels to be shaped into their vision. I think it’s extraordinary that at that time, when it was the norm, she said, I have a better idea of who I am and I need freedom to express it. To me that was very powerful. She reached a kind of personal liberation that is just so inspiring.
Her rise in the world of music ran parallel with the Civil Rights Movement in the US at the time with Martin Luther King being a huge influence on Franklin and her music. Did some of your own experiences of growing up in South Africa during apartheid play into the film?
Thank you for asking that question. Growing up in South Africa during apartheid and coming from an activist community, I was so moved when I was listening to her music as a child and learning about her. She used her art for good being raised in an activist’s community as well and it’s who she was as a child. She saw her father preaching about liberation and freedom. It was indivisible from her music. You couldn’t tell a story about her without that part of it.
Tell us about how well did Jennifer Hudson fit into role as Aretha Franklin?
When I first met her about this film, I understood almost immediately why Aretha Franklin chose her. Because it’s not just about the voice, which we know is a gift, but there was so much humanity in her. There was so much life lived, there was so much empathy in her that I thought Ms Franklin knew exactly what she was doing. And it was such a relief.
When we were doing the prep, she was committed to learning how Ms Franklin moved, how she spoke. How she sat and where we could meet in the middle. It was a rigorous process and Jennifer put her soul into it. It was so inspiring to watch her immerse herself into this woman and come out and find her own. I didn’t want a copycat performance. I never wanted an imitation. I wanted Jennifer to find the essence of Aretha Franklin inside for herself. A performance like that is much more powerful, much more relatable and much more authentic.
Did you always know Hudson was the right choice for the role?
Aretha Franklin did her own casting. She knew the truth about herself and Jennifer Hudson.
Are there any moments in the film that haunt you even today?
I loved shooting every second of this film. It was a privilege and a joy. I think that the scenes around the stuff to do with Aretha’s grief of losing some of the people in her life were difficult. Jennifer Hudson had to go some really dark places to find that grief and she has experienced a lot of grief in her own life. There were times when I thought oh why am I making this poor actress do this but she never resisted. She was powerful just like her performance.
Don’t miss it!
‘Respect’ releases in UAE cinemas on August 19.