Aretha Franklin’s voice is considered the best, most powerful, and culturally significant voice of all time. The Queen of Soul’s hit songs Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, I Say a Little Prayer, and Think, to name a few, have become a part of the American music canon — all classics that defined the resistance and resilience of Black people during the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Women’s Movement — and still resonate today at a moment in time where the world is in crisis and in need of soulfulness.
Soul music is an art form born out of the Black experience from slavery to emancipation, to the Great Migration to the creation and development of the Black middle class. Culled from spirituals, coded freedom songs, juke joints, gospel music, the blues, jazz, doo-wop, and protest music,soul music is exactly that —music and vocals that come from the depths of the Black experience in America and are filled with emotion, love, generational trauma from slavery, structural and systemic racism, and optimism steeped in unshakable faith.The core of soul music is a deeply emotional expression of a confluence of joy and pain — often influenced by love, sorrow, and release— in an attempt to find salvation in a world that subjugates, oppresses, marginalizes, and attempts to belittle or erase the very existence and contributions of Black people in America.But, there is also a sense of optimism and encouragement to not only survive but tothrive, overcome, and conquer oppression in the quest for Black joy.
Aretha Franklin’s voice, music, life, and legacy represent the struggle of the Black experience and offer a reimagining of Black liberation, excellence, and emotional rescue that speaks to African Americans, but also the greater human experience globally.
The story of Respect showcases a road map through her own life experience from being a child music prodigy who grew up with great privilege in a household in Detroit that understood the importance of social protest, racial justice, and community organizing which was centered squarely in the foundation of the Black church —faith, service, and self-actualization. And while Franklin will always be remembered for having the best voice of all time, the finding of her voice is not widely known. The beauty of Respect is that never shies away from the harshness and unfairness of life, while delivering a masterclass in navigating and overcoming grief. This musical journey of artistic inspiration creates musical masterpieces that has shifted the soundtrack to Black America.
As part of the African American Film Critics Association round table, The Koalition spoke to Jennifer Hudson (Aretha Franklin) and Marlon Waynes (Ted White) about carrying the Franklin legacy, the profound impact Respect had on their lives and more.
Personally chosen by Aretha Franklin to portray her in a feature film of her life, some might say Jennifer Hudson has been preparing for this role since she was eliminated from American Idol (at 7th place) in April 2004. “After American Idol, Aretha Franklin was doing a show in Maryville, Indiana and I wanted to open for her. Everyone knew she did not allow singers to open for her, instead starting her shows with a comedian. And, then, she approved me to open for her. So, that was a dream as are the many moments I shared with her. I find especially now, she has been a huge guide for the structure and spirit of my career.”
Drawn to the similarities of Franklin’s life, Hudson fell in love with the musicality of Franklin’s family, and the strength they found within each other. “They all were musicians – Aretha, Carolyn and Erma, but what I love most of all about them was their bond. Aretha was the voice. That’s not easy being in the family, and everybody wants to sing and there’s one undeniable star. But the fact that they always supported that and she found her strength in her sisters. She took them to the studio with her. She included them, and I feel like they were her backbone through it all.”
Aretha had to overcome so much trauma throughout her childhood and early life which eventually gave her strength and propelled her voice, sound, and music. Franklin relied on her sisters Erma and Carolyn for support creatively and foundationally which helped her be more empowered and impactful as an artist and activist. “That is one of the biggest things that sits with me the most. She already couldn’t deal with the fact that her mother left and then out of the blue she dies,” Hudson continues.
“You can’t comprehend that, definitely not that young. You can’t even comprehend that at thirty, let alone six and ten years old. So that’s what kind of made her. That’s why the songs had so much depth as a teenager because look at how much life experience she had by the time she was10 and 12 and 14. She sang from a different place because she experienced so much, and the death of her mother, oh my God, my heart hurts — still hurts for that.”
The movie also highlights, the contribution of her father and living up to his legacy. Seeing the gift of her voice, he pushed her towards greatness. Singing was calling and her father prepared her to answer the call; and it all started with the backing of the church. “He reminded her of that often, and I think that she became like the symbolic first lady of the church in a way. It helped lead Aretha to her ministry and music, one reason why she became so experienced and impactful at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She got to minister to the people and became a voice and an advocate for social justice, and the music supported that [overlap] and vice versa and the people, which I think helped make her as impactful as she is still to this day.”
Another important man in Franklin’s life was her first husband Ted White who is play by Marlon Wayans. Known for his comedy, fans rejoiced when they learned he was returning to drama since 2000’s Requiem For A dream, where he played heroin addict Tyrone C. Love.
“People aren’t going to expect to see me in a role like this because the role is leading man and villain at the same time. There’s so many different layers to the character because he’s insecure and I didn’t just do an abusive man, I did a hurt little boy. The interpretation of the material is always what we do as actors, what you’re interpretation when you give something to a role. I think seeing me with Jennifer in this kind of role in this kind of movie, this kind of love story and how damage but yet beautiful it is, I think people are going to be surprised. They’re [also] going to feel some kind of way about when they’re together and when they break up,” said Wayans.
“Ted White is Aretha Franklin’s first husband who would go on to manage her during the earliest part of her Atlantic Records days,” says Wayans. “She went from singing standards to, you know, gospel to, okay, let’s go take you into becoming the R&B queen or just the queen period, Aretha Franklin. So he changed the way she dressed and changed her, changed the venues she was playing and changed the record company. He was a catalyst in Aretha’s life.”
“As a comedian, I don’t really deal with my emotion because when the craziest thing in my life happens no matter how tragic is t may be, the first thought that comes to mind is ‘what’s funny about this?’ That’s what I start to really explore and then the pain of it, I take and open up this little safe in my heart and I throw it in there and I slam it shut and I don’t want to deal with those things. That’s what I do with comedy every week no matter what happened.”
“My momma died, I had to go tell jokes and the pain I had to throw it away, tell the jokes, make me feel better. That’s my life, finding a smile and putting a smile on other people’s faces. I do a movie like this and in this kind of role, there’s no jokes. You got to go and open up that safe you slammed all your emotions in and you have to deal with those. They’ll be times when we were doing scenes and Liesel would call cut and I’m still crying like a half-hour later. She would say ‘are you okay?’ I’m like, ‘I haven’t cried in years.’ Seriously, I was going through a lot so much happened during the making of this film, it was only God placing this in front of me for to pull from with silence and nowhere to go to tell jokes and so that’s what you see on the screen,” Wayans continued.
Despite playing a broken man, Wayans found truth in the role and lessons he can apply to his life. “I’ve always been a gentlemen, I’ve never been an abusive man in no kind of way but I’m learning to be a better communicator and also to make sure because I think it’s key to a relationship to try to talk things through. I’ve also learned there’s a piece of greatness in everybody and if you nurture what’s great about somebody you can actually water a huge creative beanstalk. If I look at a damaged guy like Ted looking at Aretha, he had no idea what she was going to become and as much as a villain as he is he was also part of her success. Looking at him he was probably 95% bad but that 5%, if we nurture that, there’s something great in there if you water it right,” Waynas finished.
To learn more about Respect, check out the full interview in the video above.