Movie Review: Respect

It’s all she’s askin’ for

Respect (2021)

In theaters; 3.5 / 5

I know, I know. It’s a biopic. And on some level there’s not anything here that every other biopic hasn’t already done: a young and gifted artist rises from a troubled youth in turbulent times to become a beloved icon, propelled by the genius of her artistic expression (and a heaping helping of putting her nose to the grindstone). But Aretha Franklin’s music and talent really is amazing, and Jennifer Hudson is clearly, fiercely committed to giving Franklin the, er, respect she’s earned in American (and world) pop culture. Hudson’s acting presence and vocal delivery is superb; she even seems to tweak her own vocal register to better mimic the original. It’s so well done that even when a real Franklin performance arrives to accompany Respect’s credits (the Queen of Soul’s absolutely soul-stirring live Kennedy Center rendition of “Natural Woman” in 2016--only two years before her death at 76), it feels totally seamless. And awesome. 

However, there are a couple of very important caveats to Respect that may make it something that’s not for everyone. I also suspect they’ll keep it out of Oscar contention, too. First, there is a lot of abuse in this film. Franklin is molested (and impregnated) at the age of 12, is held under the thumb of her domineering father for a distressingly long time, gets slapped around by one of her disastrous husbands with wincing regularity, and we get to watch her plummet all the way to rock-bottom alcoholism. It’s a lot. If you need a trigger warning for that kind of content, you’re probably better off just staying away.

The second thing, perhaps sadly, that may make Respect less-than-palatable to a mainstream Hollywood crowd is its unironic embrace of Christian redemption. The film hits that rock-bottom awfulness, and then sneaks up on the audience with a genuinely touching exercise of salvific faith. Franklin’s moment of personal Christian revelation (by which I mean her specific realization of the concept of redemption and the possibility that she could use it to fix her life) brought me to tears, but may seem very strange to a viewer with a more secular outlook. If you’re one who finds faith trite or quaint, the film’s finale may seem forced to you. Be ye warned. 

3.5 stars of 5: It’s a good but surprisingly hard film to watch, though I might do it again.