Jennifer Hudson earns our respect for her full-throttle embodiment of Aretha Franklin in an otherwise conventional biopic.



Marc Maron, Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Hudson 


There is a wonderful story at the heart of Respect. And it doesn’t belong to Aretha Franklin. While there is no disputing Aretha’s roof-raising talent – or the trials and tribulations of her astonishing life – it is all well-trodden ground. And there has been a slew of recent music biopics that have revealed enough drinking and breakdowns to last us another decade. There is, however, a story in Jennifer Hudson, the actress chosen by Aretha Franklin to play herself on film. A year ago, Jennifer Hudson was being tipped for an Oscar nomination for playing Aretha, pitted against Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey and Andra Day’s Billie Holiday. But the pandemic pushed the film’s release back a year. Now, she’s still being tipped for that Oscar nomination, but this time she’s pitted against Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana and Jessica Chastain's Tammy Faye Bakker.


But who should play Jennifer Hudson? In 2004, JHud was in seventh place in American Idol, but lost to Fantasia Barrino. Yet MTV listed her as the sixth greatest contestant in American Idol history and noted that her exit was the most shocking of all time. To prove their point, JHud landed the part of Effie White in the film version of Dreamgirls, her first movie, and won the Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta for it. Two years after that, her nephew, her brother and her mother were killed in a shooting in Chicago, and a year after that she won a Grammy, the same year that Barack Obama invited her to join him on a fundraiser in Los Angeles. More recently she played Grizabella in Cats (and sang the film’s showstopper, ‘Memory’), and is now playing Aretha, the Queen of Soul. Last year Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Hers, surely, is a story worth the telling.


Here, though, Jennifer Hudson certainly does justice to her subject and first-time director Liesl Tommy frames her star’s deliverance with a generous reverence. Neither fans of Aretha nor JHud should be disappointed, although unsuspecting cinemagoers may find themselves trudging down an all-too familiar road. Indeed, there is the sexual abuse, the pregnancies (Aretha was twelve when she first got pregnant), the black eyes, the tantrums and the ‘demons’, the latter invariably laced with alcohol. But Liesl Tommy’s film was an opportunity that Hudson would have been mad to turn down. Nonetheless, Respect lacks the shape, ingenuity and freshness of many of the more recent music biopics. In fact, a documentary might have been a more comfortable fit for the material. But let that not detract from Hudson’s extraordinary performance – or her interpretation of those magnificent songs.




Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley, Skye Dakota Turner, Tate Donovan, Kimberly Scott, Myk Watford, Albert Jones, Leroy McClain, Gilbert Glenn Brown.


Dir Liesl Tommy, Pro Harvey Mason Jr, Scott Bernstein, Jonathan Glickman and Stacey Sher, Ex Pro Jennifer Hudson and Sue Baden-Powell, Screenplay Tracey Scott Wilson, from a story by Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson, Ph Kramer Morgenthau, Pro Des Ina Mayhew, Ed Avril Beukes, Music Kris Bowers, Costumes Clint Ramos.


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Bron Creative/Glickmania/One Community-Universal Pictures.

145 mins. USA/Canada. 2021. Rel: 10 September 2021. Cert. 12A.