Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, from 1960 to 1963, the dramatic film “Rustin” (based on real events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Openly gay activist Bayard Rustin battles people inside and outside the civil rights movement in his plans for a large-scale peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., while his personal life has various entanglements.
Culture Audience: “Rustin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a compelling but somewhat formulaic biography about an influential civil rights activist who has historically been overshadowed by more famous people.
Colman Domingo gives a commanding and charismatic performance in “Rustin,” a briskly paced drama that tells the story of underrated civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who fought several public and private battles against racism and homophobia. It’s the type of movie that never lets you forget that you’re watching a drama, because the main characters often talk as if they’re giving speeches and lectures instead of having normal conversations. The movie delivers plenty of inspiration and heartfelt moments, but it zips around so much, some viewers will think that “Rustin” is a bit shallow and formulaic.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Rustin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s “Milk”) and Julian Breece co-wrote the screenplay for “Rustin.” The “Rustin” screenplay isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has many memorable moments because of the way that the cast members interpret the dialogue. For the purposes of this review, the real Bayard Rustin (who died in 1987, at the age of 75) will be referred to by his last name, while the movie character of Bayard Rustin will be referred to by his first name.
“Rustin” is not a comprehensive biopic, since the story takes place only during the years 1960 to 1963. However, the movie capably shows how Rustin is an often-overlooked influence in the U.S. civil rights movement and was a driving force in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Not all of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios are believable, such as the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen) becomes almost like a sidekick character whenever Bayard (played by Domingo) goes on rants about how Bayard wants things to be.
Although “Rustin” shows Bayard experiencing violent racism (shown mostly in quick flashbacks), the biggest conflicts he has in the movie is with other civil rights officials. “Rustin” takes a realistic look at how internal power struggles and feuds within the U.S. civil rights movement often caused damage to the movement and/or slowed down progress. And in case it isn’t obvious to viewers, Bayard points it out in a preachy comment after preachy comment that racism isn’t the only enemy to the civil rights movement.
Early on in the movie (which is told in chronological order), Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) tries to ruin Bayard’s reputation by spreading stories that Bayard (an openly gay bachelor with no children) and Martin (a married father) are secret lovers. Bayard vehemently denies this accusation and puts in his resignation notice with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because he thinks that Martin will back up Bayard and publicly urge him not to leave the NAACP.
However, Bayard (who was based in New York City during this time) doesn’t get Martin’s support, and the NAACP accepts Bayard’s resignation. It leads to a period of estrangement between Martin and Bayard, who becomes disillusioned with the NAACP and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Congressman Powell is portrayed as a power-hungry liar, but he isn’t the only person who becomes an enemy of Bayard.
Bayard’s main adversary in the movie is NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock), who disagrees with Bayard on almost everything. When Bayard comes up with the idea of having a massive protest that would bus in at least 100,000 people from around the United States, Roy tells anyone who’ll listen that it’s a terrible idea because Roy thinks the event would be too expensive and too hard to manage. The 1963 March on Washington ended up getting a crowd of about 250,000 people.
Roy (who is portrayed as egotistical and stubborn) also puts up a lot of resistance to Bayard’s plan to make it a two-day event, because Roy thinks a one-day event is more realistic. Bayard’s most loyal ally in these conflicts is union organizer A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), who is like a father figure to Bayard. Bayard’s biological family is not part of the story. (It can be assumed he’s estranged from his family members because they disapprove of his sexuality.)
Meanwhile, although Bayard is open about his sexuality to the people who are closest to him, he struggles with finding a life partner because he’s a workaholic who’s afraid of committing himself to one person. In real life, Rustin often blurred his personal and professional lives, by hiring his lovers as his assistants. He also frequently dated younger men, many who were white. In the movie, the character of Tom (played by Gus Halper), a white worker for the NAACP who becomes Bayard’s assistant, isn’t based on anyone specific but is a composite of these types of men who would be sexually involved with Bayard.
Tom’s on-again/off-again relationship with Bayard gets sidelined in the story when Bayard has a deeper emotional connection with a closeted Christian preacher named Elias Taylor (played by Johnny Ramey), whose wife Claudia Taylor (played by Adrienne Warren) expects Elias to be the heir to her pastor father’s church. “Rustin” gives glimpses into Bayard’s nightlife activities, such as Bayard going to gay bars or cruising for sex partners on the street, but these are very fleeting glimpses. During this time when it was illegal in the U.S. to be homosexual or queer, the movie has one scene showing law enforcement raiding a gay bar that Bayard frequented. Bayard luckily avoids getting arrested in this raid because he wasn’t in the bar at the time.
“Rustin” gives only a very short acknowledgement that although women were valuable members of the civil rights movement, women were often overlooked and underappreciated when it came to who got the most power and the most glory in the movement. Dr. Anna Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder) is depicted as the character who is the most outspoken about this sexism. Bayard temporarily appeases her by having her be a mid-level manager in the activities that he plans.
Although Bayard shows empathy and support for the women closest to him—including civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald)—in the end, he doesn’t place a high priority on elevating qualified women into the highest positions of power. The movie has numerous scenes of meetings with African American civil rights leaders, and there are no women in the room. Almost all of the people whom Bayard personally mentors are other men, including an eager young activist named Courtney (played by Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan), who has a platonic relationship with Bayard.
Meanwhile, most of the female actors in the movie are portraying characters who don’t have names and mostly do the work of assistants and secretaries. Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carra Patterson), who doesn’t have much screen time in “Rustin,” is shown in the movie only as a housewife, which is what her husband wanted her to be. In real life, she had a college education and her own accomplishments outside of being a wife and mother. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes a cameo as Mahalia Jackson performing at a rally led by Martin, but this scene-stealing appearance gives no further insight into Jackson’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
Because “Rustin” tends to make Bayard a forceful and dominating presence in every scene that he’s in, other important civil rights leaders are reduced to a handful of soundbites. They include John Lewis (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Medger Evers (played by Rashad Demond Edwards), Cleve Robinson (played by Michael Potts), Whitney Young (played by Kevin Mambo) and James “Jim” Farmer (played by Frank Harts). The obvious intention is to make Bayard look larger-than-life, but it’s often to the detriment of realism and development of other characters in the story that should have been depicted in a more meaningful way.
Some of the movie’s dialogue is a little hokey. For example, in a scene with Tom and Bayard in Bayard’s home, Tom is getting ready to smoke a marijuana joint. Bayard mildly scolds him by saying about smoking marijuana: “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Tom replies, “Last time I checked, we were illegal.”
But the movie also delivers some memorable zingers, such as a scene where Bayard confronts Martin about homophobia among civil rights officials: “On the day I was born black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”
“Rustin” has a very talented cast, but it’s less of an ensemble movie and more of a showcase for Colman, who admirably brings a lot of soul and vigor to the role. Ameen is very good in the role of Dr. King, but the movie makes the Dr. King character become secondary to Bayard’s outspoken presence whenever they’re in the same room together. It’s a little hard to believe that Dr. King, who had his own strong personality, would be this subdued around someone with less power and less authority in making decisions for the civil rights movement. The movie gives credit to Rustin for influencing Dr. King to follow the non-violent philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi.
“Rustin” wants to make a point of how the real Rustin didn’t get enough credit for things he did behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. But by making him such a big personality who put himself at the center of conflicts, “Rustin” somewhat contradicts this movie’s message that the real Rustin was easily overlooked because he wanted to “fly under the radar.” It’s not until near the end of the movie that the character of Bayard shows humility in not seeking the spotlight for himself in the civil rights movement. A few more of these humble moments would have made the character more interesting and the movie more convincing in its premise that Rustin didn’t really want the widespread public recognition that he deserved.
Netflix released “Rustin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 17, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1950s to 1970s, in various cities in the U.S. and Europe, the dramatic film “Respect” about music legend Aretha Franklin features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) portraying people who were connected to Franklin in some way.
Culture Clash: Franklin soared to the greatest heights in show business, but her personal life was troubled with alcoholism, abusive relationships, and being haunted by childhood traumas.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Aretha Franklin fans, “Respect” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic celebrity biopics and don’t mind if the pacing and story are disappointingly uneven.
It’s indisputable that Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest music legends of all time. She won every possible major award for singing. She influenced millions of people and had numerous iconic hits. She was celebrated for other areas of her life, such as her civil rights activism and charitable work. And she rightfully holds the title of Queen of Soul. Franklin (who was 76 when she died of pancreatic cancer in 2018) deserves a biopic that does justice to her extraordinary life. Unfortunately, the woefully muddled “Respect” is not that movie.
Simply put: In this movie, the music soars, while the drama often bores. At 144 minutes long, “Respect” is an uneven biopic that makes a number of baffling and terrible choices in how to present Franklin’s life. “Respect” is the feature-film directorial debut of Liesl Tommy, who has extensive directorial experience on Broadway and in television. Tracey Scott Wilson, who’s been a playwright and a TV writer, also makes her feature-film debut as a screenwriter in “Respect.” Their lack of feature-film experience might have hurt the movie.
“Respect” has the benefit of a very talented cast, including two cast members (Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker) who have won Oscars for their acting. Hudson, who portrays Aretha Franklin in the movie, is an excellent, Grammy-winning singer in her own right. She has standout moments in “Respect” when she sings Franklin’s songs with a fiery passion that’s admirable. But it’s hard to go wrong with the movie’s musical numbers when an outstanding singer like Hudson gets to belt out Aretha Franklin classics that Hudson was singing years before she got cast in this movie.
Where the movie stumbles is how it drags down too many scenes with sluggish pacing, mediocre acting and uninspired dialogue. In addition, “Respect” is often tone-deaf and borderline irresponsible when it comes to depicting racial inequalities and racism in a movie that mostly takes place in the U.S. during the era of legal racial segregation and the civil rights movement that helped make this segregation illegal. It’s as if this movie was made by people who want to forget the racism experienced by Aretha Franklin and other black people in America, and would rather have scene after scene of Aretha Franklin getting abused by her African American husband.
One of the biggest mistakes is that the movie—which is mostly told in chronological order from the 1950s to 1970s (with some flashbacks)—spends the first 20 to 25 minutes focusing only on Aretha as a pre-teen, beginning in 1952 when she was 10 years old. As important as it is to depict Franklin’s childhood, it didn’t need to take up this much screen time in a feature-length movie. This lapse in judgment in spending too much time on Aretha’s childhood seems to be because the filmmakers wanted to showcase the impressive singing talent of Skye Dakota Turner, who is fantasic in her role as a young Aretha.
However, the childhood scenes are very repetitive in showing that Aretha as a child was trotted out like a show pony by her domineering minister father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin (played by Whitaker), to sing for audiences whenever he told her to sing. The audiences could be in places as varied as a church, a nightclub or a house party. C.L. knew early in Aretha’s childhood that Aretha was going to be a star, and he was going to do everything possible to make it happen.
The movie also shows how Aretha was affected by her parents’ separation when she was a child. By the time the movie begins in 1952, the couple had been separated for four years. Her mother Barbara (played by Audra McDonald) moved out of the family home, which can be intepreted as either abandonment or as a woman who didn’t have the money and resources to fight for child custody against a more powerful spouse.
Aretha’s father had custody of Aretha and her siblings from this marriage. These siblings included older sister Erma, older brother Cecil and younger sister Carolyn. The actors portraying these siblings are Kennedy Chanel as young Erma, Saycon Sengbloh as adult Erma, Peyton Jackson as young Cecil, LeRoy McClain as adult Cecil, Nevaeh Moore as young Carolyn and Hailey Kilgore as adult Carolyn.
C.L.’s mother (played by Kimberly Scott), who has the name Mama Franklin in the movie’s credits, helps raise the children. She is a kind and loving authority figure in the children’s lives, but not as warm and welcoming to the kids’ mother. Barbara is a mysterious and intermittent presence who’s treated like a pariah by C.L. and his mother. There’s a lot of tension when Barbara comes to visit the children.
The reason for the breakdown in the marriage is stated only as C.L. spending too much time away from home as a traveling minister. His alleged infidelities are not mentioned in the film, nor is it mentioned that he fathered a daughter named Carl Ellan (born in 1940) with a 12-year-old girl from his congregation named Mildred Jennings. (It’s a widely reported story that has not been disputed by the Franklin family.)
It is mentioned during an argument scene that C.L. abandoned his first wife and family and then moved on to Barbara, who was his second wife. Barbara and C.L. were never legally divorced. While still legally married but separated from Barbara, C.L. began an on-again/off-again relationship in 1949, with a gospel singer named Clara Ward (played by Heather Headley), who was his longtime companion until her death in 1973. Although she and C.L. were never married, they were known as the reigning couple of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where C.L. was a very influential member of the community.
Even though C.L. was the more dominant parent in Aretha’s life, the movie shows that her mother Barbara had a huge influence on Aretha as a singer and as a musician. The movie depicts this mother and daughter spending happy times singing together, often while Barbara played the piano. Aretha also became a skilled pianist.
Tragically, Barbara died of a heart attack at the age of 34 in 1952. The movie shows how Aretha was devastated by her mother’s death, but the movie doesn’t mention how Barbara died. When C.L. reluctantly tells Aretha the news about Barbara’s passing, Aretha doesn’t even ask what caused her mother’s death. It’s an example of how this movie sloppily leaves out realistic details and how it treats some of Aretha’s family members more like plot devices than real human beings.
Aside from having a messy and fractured family life, Aretha was also profoundly affected by childhood sexual abuse. It’s depicted in a non-explicit way in the movie as Aretha, at 10 or 11 years old, being the victim of statutory rape by a guy in his late teens or early 20s who was a guest in the Franklin home during a house party. Later, there’s a brief flashback to Aretha as a 12-year-old, pregnant with her first child: a boy named Clarence (named after her father), who was born in 1955.
For years, Aretha refused to publicly say who was the father of her son Clarence. In 1957, she gave birth out of wedlock to a second son named Edward, whose father was Edward Jordan. According to several reports, Aretha wrote in her will that Jordan was also the father of Clarence.
She went on to have two more sons: Ted White Jr. (born in 1964, from her first marriage to her manager Ted White), and Kecalf Cunningham (born in 1970, from a relationship she had with her tour manager Ken Cunningham). In the movie, Joel Xavier Alston and William J. Simmons portray Clarence; Christopher Daniel and Chase Burgess portray Edward; and Malaki Sample portrays Ted White Jr.
Aretha was a high-profile supporter of the U.S civil rights movement, and the movie correctly shows that she and her father C.L. were allies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Gilbert Glenn Brown), the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. However, the movie makes it look like Aretha never experienced racism from white people. It’s really insulting to viewers’ intelligence that the filmmakers of “Respect” make a big deal out of Aretha’s support of the civil rights movement and yet refused to show why the civil rights movement existed in the first place.
Aretha was born in Memphis and grew up in Detroit. She spent years touring in the U.S. during the ugly period in American history when racial segregation was legal. Black people and other people of color who traveled in certain parts of the U.S. experienced human rights violations, especially in places where people were segregated by race. Anyone who wasn’t white in a “white only” area could be subjected to hateful abuse or worse. And yet, the movie completely erases these racist experiences from her life.
It wouldn’t have been so hard to have something as simple as a scene of Aretha traveling somewhere while on tour and seeing signs that said “White Only” or “Colored Only,” which were prevalent in these racially segregated areas. It’s grossly inaccurate for any movie about an African American entertainer who toured the U.S. during the segregation era to not show this despicable part of American history. And the fact that “Respect” was written and directed by black women makes it even more mind-boggling that they would leave out this truthful part of Aretha’s life. Aretha might have been a superstar, but she still experienced racism, just like any black person in America.
In fact, the movie makes it look like all the white people whom Aretha ever encountered in her life went out of their way to be nice to her. And that might have been true on a business level when she had some type of fame and people were making money off of her, but not in her everyday life as an African American female, especially before she became famous. A large part of this movie is about before Aretha was a celebrity. That doesn’t mean this movie had to make all white people she encountered look like racists, because that would be inaccurate. But it’s also very wrong and insulting to the civil rights movement to depict Aretha Franklin’s life as being some kind of concocted fantasy where she was immune to racism.
The biggest racist and the biggest villain in the movie is Aretha’s first husband Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans), whom she married in 1961, at age 18, and who became her manager right around the time that she signed her first record deal. He is written as the worst possible stereotype of an angry black man. He’s abusive, violent and misogynistic. In case it isn’t clear that Ted is also a racist, he frequently spews derogatory racist names for white people and black people whenever he wants to feel important.
Ted flies into a rage when he sees other men, especially white men, admiring Aretha. There’s a scene in a hotel room where Ted verbally and physically attacks one of Aretha’s recording session musicians (a white man), who tries to talk Ted out of canceling a recording session that is going well. Ted wants to cut short the recording session, all because Ted didn’t like the way one of the musicians was touching Aretha.
Of course, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see (because the movie shows it) that Aretha’s attraction to Ted was partly to due to rebelling against her father (who greatly disapproved of Ted) and partly because she wanted a husband who was controlling like her father. Like many abusive partners, Ted has a charming side that he uses to keep his partner hooked on the relationship. Aretha is depicted as someone who was very insecure with low self-esteem, except when it came to showing her talent.
Although not as toxic as Ted, Aretha’s father C.L. is also portrayed as having an unhealthy relationship with Aretha. For example, in a scene where Aretha was a Columbia Records artist, she tells C.L. that she doesn’t have hit songs because “you don’t make good songs for me.” In response, C.L. slaps her in the face. The movie is filled with hokey lines, such as when Aretha’s father C.L. says to her when she fires him as her manager and replaces him with Ted: “You’re going to beg to take me back, but I won’t!”
Whitaker isn’t in the movie as much as Wayans, but both C.L. and Ted are depicted as two-dimensional control freaks. Ted manipulates Aretha to stay with him, by saying that they both have personal demons and only she can help him control his demons. It’s made very clear throughout the story, because the movie shows viewers through flashbacks, that Aretha’s alcoholism and her relationship problems are the result of her dysfunctional childhood and her trauma from sexual abuse.
The movie accurately shows that Aretha wasn’t an overnight sensation. During the early years of her career, when Aretha was signed to Columbia Records, she had trouble finding her identity as a singer. She sang mostly R&B music, but she couldn’t get any mainstream crossover hits from any of the albums that she released on Columbia. Columbia Records chief John Hammond (played by Tate Donovan) is depicted as friendly but not very attuned to Aretha on an artistic level.
In addition to her mother’s musical influence, Aretha had early musical guidance from Reverend Dr. James Cleveland (played by Tituss Burgess), who has a small role in the film, mostly playing the piano while Aretha sings. It’s such a small role that many viewers who don’t know Aretha’s history might forget that this character is in the movie. The character is written so generically that it’s a waste of Burgess’ talent.
Mary J. Blige has a brief supporting role as singer Dinah Washington, a friend and inspiration to a young Aretha. In one of the movie’s several melodramatic scenes, Aretha as a young adult in 1963 (before she was famous) is singing at New York City’s Villlage Vanguard nightclub, where Dinah is in the audience. Just as Aretha begins singing one of Dinah’s songs as a tribute, Dinah loses her temper and flips over the table where Dinah is sitting.
Dinah yells at Aretha in front of the crowd: “Bitch! Don’t you ever sing the queen’s songs when the queen is in front of you!” It’s the kind of scene that you might see in a Tyler Perry movie. Later, in the dressing room, Dinah has calmed down, and she offers this advice to Aretha: “Find the songs that suit you. Until you do that, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Aretha’s career vastly improved after she signed to Atlantic Records in 1966. Under the musical mentorship of Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler (played by Marc Maron), she found the songs that suited her. These hits included “Respect” (a cover version of an Otis Redding song), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Think,” all of which Hudson performs in the movie.
And for the first time in her career, Aretha’s session musicians were all white, which initially didn’t sit well at all with her racist husband/manager Ted. There are mutliple scenes where Ted and Jerry clash over the race of Aretha’s backup musicians. Ted wanted to stick with the black musicians Aretha had been working with for quite some time, while Jerry says these musicians are inferior to the white musicians whom Jerry wanted to have for Aretha’s backup band.
However, Ted couldn’t argue with the success that came when Aretha started getting big hits and became a major star. They moved to New York City and led a celebrity lifestyle that hid from the public a lot of abuse that Ted inflicted on her behind the scenes. The movie shows that after Ted brutally assaulted Aretha during a vicious fight, she left him to go back to her family in Detroit on at least one occasion. But he sweet-talked his way back into her life and took a lot of credit for her success. The couple eventually divorced in 1969.
Jerry Wexler is portrayed as a shrewd wheeler dealer who was skilled with artists not just on an artistic level but also on a business level. He’s credited with bringing Aretha to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1967, to record one of her most well-known songs: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the title track of her album released that year.
For a movie about this music legend, there’s the expected number of hits, but they’re presented in a very superficial, jukebox style. One minute, Aretha is at home singing along with some family members to Redding’s “Respect” and saying how she wanted to record a version of the song, even though Ted and some other people were skeptical. The next minute, she’s recorded the song, and it’s a big hit.
There is some screen time (but not enough) showing how Aretha crafted the songs in the recording studio. Most of her hits were written by other songwriters, but she played piano and helped arrange many of her song melodies. The movie gives most of the credit for Aretha’s transformation in the recording studio to Jerry and the white musicians he hired to be her backup band. Jerry and these musicians are depicted as showing Aretha a different way of approaching music than what she was previously doing in a recording studio.
Aretha had the talent all along, but the movie has somewhat of a “white savior” narrative that Jerry and these musicians took her career to hitmaking levels. Eventually, she had a racially integrated band, but the movie presents any of her male co-workers as perceived problems for bullying Ted, who was paranoid that other men would try to seduce Aretha or try to undermine Ted’s control over her. Meanwhile, the movie shows that Ted was cheating on Aretha.
“Think” was one of the hits that Aretha wrote, but the behind-the-scenes story about the song is reduced to it being inspired by her abusive relationship with Ted, who got a co-songwriting credit. Later in the movie, when they have an argument, Aretha expresses regret about giving him that songwriting credit because she says he hardly worked on the song. Overall, the movie does a disservice in telling the stories behind Aretha’s biggest hits.
The story behind “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—written by Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Wexler—is left completely out of the movie, even though the song is unquestionably one of Aretha’s greatest anthems. The closest that the movie comes to acknowledging who wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” is during the end credits: There’s a clip showing the real Aretha performing the song during the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, where Carole King was an honoree and rapturously reacting in the audience. It just serves as a reminder that no scripted project with actors can truly capture the musical genius of the real Aretha.
“Aint No Way,” written by Aretha’s younger sister Carolyn, is performed in the movie, which leaves out the story behind that song too. Carolyn was an “out of the closet” lesbian to her friends and family, and the song was about the secret love she had for another woman. The “Respect” movie does not discuss the personal lives of Carolyn and Erma, who were longtime backup singers for Aretha. And their personal lives didn’t have to be in this movie, but the movie erases a lot of the LGBTQ presence in Aretha’s life.
According to author David Ritz’s comprehensive 2014 biography “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” gay and lesbian couples and hookups were very common among the performers and employees of the gospel tours that Aretha did in her youth, and they were among her earliest exposures to LGBTQ people. The closest that the movie comes to acknowledging the LGBTQ community that was part of Aretha’s life is during the movie’s 1952 opening scene at a Franklin house party, where two men are very briefly seen flirting with each other and giving each other an amorous embrace.
It’s as if the “Respect” filmmakers went so far out of their way to erase certain truthful aspects of Aretha’s life, in order to not to offend certain people who want to pretend that these facts of her life did not exist. Instead, the “African American diva with the abusive husband” narrative is one they obviously felt comfortable pounding into the story repeatedly. Aretha Franklin was married to Ted White for only eight years. She experienced racism for a lot longer than that, but you’d never know it by what the filmmakers chose to put or not put in this movie.
After Aretha and Ted broke up, Aretha’s older brother Cecil eventually took over her business affairs, but that’s barely acknowledged in the movie. Her siblings are just treated as side characters who are there to serve Aretha or get yelled at when Aretha is angry and/or drunk. More than once in the film, Aretha accuses her sisters of being jealous that she’s a more successful singer than they are. If you’re looking for any insightful Franklin family scenes in this movie, forget it. Her biological family members are shamelessly and unfairly written as supporting characters in a soap opera.
Aretha’s affair with her tour manager Ken Cunningham (played by Albert Jones) is portrayed as partly getting revenge on Ted for his infidelities and partly because Aretha turned to Ken out of loneliness. Unlike Ted, Ken is portrayed as a good guy. However, Ken got involved with Aretha during the worst of her alcoholism, so the relationship was doomed, even though the movie rushes in an “Aretha gets sober” redemption arc toward the end. The movie doesn’t show Aretha and Ken’s breakup, because the film ends in 1972, when Aretha recorded her “Amazing Grace” live gospel album, which remains the best-selling album of her career. (“Respect” also mentions the “Amazing Grace” documentary film that was made about recording this album.)
Hudson’s portrayal of Aretha is not horrible, but it’s far from an award-worthy performance. She excels during the musical numbers, but her dramatic scenes with some of the actors (especially with Wayans) are often mired in stilted, awkward pauses. Hudson sometimes has the real Aretha’s vocal cadence when she speaks, but other times she drops it and talks like Jennifer Hudson.
The scenes about Ted’s jealousy and abusiveness wallow in tacky melodrama. There’s a scene at an Aretha concert where Ted gets angry backstage when he sees that some of Aretha’s overzealous fans are trying to climb on stage. Instead of letting the professional security team handle it, Ted storms out on stage in the middle of the performance and acts like he’s about to body slam anyone who gets close to Aretha. And when Ted sees the way Aretha and Ken look at each other when they first meet, he’s ready to pick a fight with Ken.
One of the worst scenes in the movie is when a drunk Aretha falls off of the stage during a 1967 concert in Columbus, Georgia. This happened in real life, and she broke her arm in this incident. In the movie, no broken bones are mentioned, but she’s shown unconscious on the floor, like a rag doll. The entire scene is so clumsily filmed and melodramatic, it comes across as an unintentional bad parody.
As for her civil rights activism, because this movie inaccurately makes it look like Aretha never experienced racism first-hand, she’s portrayed as somewhat of a bystander in the civil rights movement. There’s a scene where Aretha, as a grown woman, asks her father for permission to march in civil rights protests, but he says no. There’s a scene where Aretha is shown getting the news about Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and later singing at his funeral. And there’s a scene that’s set in 1970, with Aretha giving a press conference where she talks about how imprisoned activist Angela Davis needs to be set free. There are no scenes of Aretha or anyone in her family actually experiencing racism directly, even though everyone knows it happened in real life.
Those are just some examples of how this movie disrespectfully chopped up and/or tossed aside aspects of Aretha’s life, in service of a warped narrative that Aretha never experienced racism, and the only people who ever hurt her were black men. In portraying Aretha’s illustrious and complicated life, this very misguided biopic took the tabloid route and made approximately half of the screen time be about Aretha in an abusive relationship with a man she was married to for eight of the 76 years that she lived.
Was she flawed? Did she make a lot of mistakes? Of course. But she deserved much better than a movie called “Respect” was willing to give her. Fortunately, there are several well-written Aretha Franklin biographies, interviews that she gave over the years, and (of course) her timeless music that give a more meaningful and more accurate picture of who she really was.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “Respect” in U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021. A one-night-only sneak preview of the movie was held in U.S. cinemas on August 8, 2021.
The following is a press release from the Tony Awards:
Some of the world’s biggest stars from stage and screen will appear at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards. The list of names announced includes Darren Criss, Tina Fey, Sutton Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, Regina King, Laura Linney, Audra McDonald, Ben Platt, Billy Porter, Andrew Rannells, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Michael Shannon. More presenters will be announced soon.
The Tony Awards telecast will feature an incredible line up of celebrity presenters and musical performances for Broadway’s biggest night.
James Corden will return to host the American Theatre Wing’s 2019 Tony Awards, which will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on CBS. The three-hour program will air on Sunday, June 9th 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. (ET/PT time delay). The Tony Awards are presented by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing.
You can also watch the Tony Awards online with CBS All Access. More info at cbs.com/all-access.
June 5, 2019 UPDATE: A second round of artists has been added to appear at THE 73rd ANNUAL TONY AWARDS(R), live from the historic Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Sunday, June 9 (8:00-11:00 PM, live ET/delayed PT) on the CBS Television Network. The star-studded lineup includes Sara Bareilles, Laura Benanti, Abigail Breslin, Danny Burstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Josh Groban, Danai Gurira, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Jackson, Shirley Jones, Jane Krakowski, Judith Light, Lucy Liu, Aasif Mandvi, Sienna Miller, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Catherine O’Hara, Kelli O’Hara, Karen Olivo, Anthony Ramos, Marisa Tomei, Aaron Tveit, Samira Wiley and BeBe Winans.
Emmy and Tony Award winner James Corden will host the 2019 Tony Awards for the second time. As previously announced, Darren Criss, Tina Fey, Sutton Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Regina King, Laura Linney, Audra McDonald, Ben Platt, Billy Porter, Andrew Rannells and Michael Shannon will also take part in Broadway’s biggest night.
The TONY Awards, which honors theater professionals for distinguished achievement on Broadway, has been broadcast on CBS since 1978. This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the TONY Awards, which were first held on April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria’s Grand Ballroom. The ceremony is presented by Tony Award Productions, which is a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, which founded the Tonys.
Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment will return as executive producers. Weiss will also serve as director for the 20th consecutive year. Ben Winston is a producer.
June 6, 2019 UPDATE:
The Tony Awards telecast will feature performances by the casts of “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations”; “Beetlejuice”; “The Cher Show”; “Choir Boy”; “Hadestown”; “Kiss Me, Kate”; “Oklahoma!”; “The Prom” and “Tootsie.” The evening will also feature a special performance by Tony Award winning-actress Cynthia Erivo.