By Jason Hoelzel, Harvard Divinity School Alumni MDiv ‘20
Respect (2021) is a biographical music drama chronicling the life of Aretha Franklin. The story begins with a focus on the connection Aretha shares with her mother. Aretha experiences intense pain early in her life, including her mother’s death and sexual assault from several men. The film punctuates important moments in Aretha’s life with her songs, culminating in the story behind the recording of her soundtrack Amazing Grace (1971).
Religion in Respect (2021):
Religion is central to Aretha Franklin’s life and identity. Aretha’s father, C. L. Franklin, is a well-connected preacher and early in her life, Aretha sings gospel songs with her mother and others in her affluent family’s wide circle of friends. The film portrays its religious characters as complex and multifaceted. For example, even though C. L. is a prominent preacher, he has a drinking problem, and he is a perpetrator of domestic violence. While most of the religious people in Aretha’s lives come from the same milieu and similar religious backgrounds, they often differ in their beliefs. One particularly stark example is the conflict between C. L. and Aretha’s abusive husband, Ted White. Ted often quotes the Bible to counter C. L.’s opinions.
In Respect, we see people whose religion informs their places in the wider culture and society. C. L.’s sermons often connect religious themes and stories to the struggle for Civil Rights. For C. L., religion is often a useful tool for advancing political ideas and his sense of fundamental human rights. Aretha’s family is close to Martin Luther King, Jr., who at one point honors Aretha for her work in the Civil Rights movement. The family is so close to King in fact, that when he is assassinated, Aretha sings at his funeral. Notably, Aretha’s political and religious ideas do not entirely align with those of MLK, Jr. After King’s assassination, Aretha makes clear that she is not completely behind the idea of nonviolence. She even aligns herself with Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted of murdering a state trooper. Religion is also central to Aretha’s musical and artistic sensibilities. As her career develops, Aretha’s becomes dubbed the “Queen of Soul,” a title that honors the centrality of Gospel music to Aretha’s artistry.
Disrupting Assumptions and Telling Important Stories:
Respect tells important stories that may disrupt the assumptions of many in a mass audience. The details of her life might come as a surprise to contemporary audiences who were not alive during most of Aretha’s career, or to white audiences who might see Aretha as an iconic singer without knowing her story. Aretha’s family was wealthy and well-connected in the 1940s, a fact that – while unsurprising to black audiences who have long known the history of black excellence and black wealth – may come as a surprise to a non-black community that has been taught black Americans generally were not successful until after the Civil Rights movement. In a world that often flattens or blatantly ignores the complex and diverse stories of Black people, it is important that we see an affluent Black family prior to the Civil Rights movement. Similarly, contemporary audiences might be surprised to see the devoutly religious Franklins’ friends include queer men. Similarly, when Aretha decides to do a Gospel recording, she receives compassion and guidance from James Cleveland, a queer man. Another important and perhaps surprising story is the interracial nature of Aretha’s first band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Aretha’s collaborations with the band exemplifies the attempts to achieve racial harmony.