Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in ’Respect’. Picture: Supplied
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in ’Respect’. Picture: Supplied

Much 'Respect' to SA director Liesl Tommy for her feature film debut on the Queen of Soul

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Aug 13, 2021

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Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is an anthem recognised globally, and is synonymous with the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

It’s also a song that has lifted spirits after those bad breaks ups and is the go-to performance song for drag queens.

The Queen of Soul’s musical repertoire just didn’t resonate with listeners, it stirred emotions and evoked confidence and inspired a shift in mindset.

Although Aretha passed away on August 16, 2018, her life story and achievements inspired National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha”, which chronicled several periods of her life, and the recently released movie biopic, “Respect”.

Interestingly, Liesl Tommy, a South African director now based in the US, makes her feature film debut with this release.

To be trusted with overseeing such a massive production is a huge validation, which she doesn’t take lightly.

In a recent virtual interview, she said: “Thank you, yes, that’s exactly how it feels after many years in the business to be given a project like this is kind of a dream come true.

“So in 2018, I got a call from the producer in the studio, MGM, someone had given them my name as someone that they should speak to about this.

“And I knew the call was coming and so I did a ton of research and I pitched the story that I thought the movie should be.

“I pitched the time period it should cover, the songs it should have and a specific emotional journey that I thought the audiences would really be fascinated by and, you know, it was just a very complete picture.”

Normally, a move like this is deemed premature as it comes after the meeting.

Actor Jennifer Hudson and director Liesl Tommy on the set of “Respect”. Picture: Supplied

Tommy laughed and said: “I just skipped that step and said, ‘Well, here are my thoughts’. And it kind of paid off, though.”

Now condensing the life of an icon and an activist like Aretha is no easy feat. But Tommy was very clear-cut about the story she wanted to share.

“It was something we definitely obsessed over through the making of the screenplay part of it.

“There are some great songs, there are so many great anecdotes and moments in her life.

“But when you are making a film, you have to have a cohesive, central emotional journey.

“The way I looked at it is that I had to make a really exciting, compelling film about a woman whose name happens to be Aretha Franklin.”

“And so that meant, for me, not making a birth to death film because I feel you just try to cram so many things in that it kind of becomes a spectacle and not emotionally gripping.

“And that is why I chose a specific part of her life so that we really get to know her. And get to know key exciting, pivotal moments in her life.”

Prior to her passing, Aretha hand-picked Jennifer Hudson as her screen proxy. In meeting the award-winning singer and actress, she understood the choice.

Tommy added: “As soon as I spent time with her like six to eight months in advance of shooting, I understood why Aretha chose her.

“Aretha Franklin was a very smart woman and she really understood, not just the vocal gifts that Jennifer would be able to bring to her story, but also the emotional wrath because, like Aretha, Jennifer has lived it in real life.

“And any actress who was going to inhabit Aretha would have had to have the breadth of experience to really bring a complex performance.

“And she was able to do that. She was so committed also; she started working on her accent, on her movement, on her singing voice, to make sure it kind of landed in the Aretha sound and time period. She was tireless in her preparation.”

Aside from Jennifer, Tommy bagged quite the acting coup with the cast, which includes: Forest Whitaker (C. L. Franklin), Marlon Wayans (Ted White), Audra McDonald (Barbara Siggers Franklin), Tate Donovan (John Hammond), Mary J. Blige (Dinah Washington) and more.

“As a director, I have a very strong point of view about the casting.

“You know when I was a young struggling director, I worked for two and a half years as a casting director in New York.

“So I really got to understand how you should be casting things and a sensibility about actors and I had a strong idea about the kind of actors I wanted for this film.

“I felt like everybody who sang should be able to sing and sing on set. And that’s why I chose some of these broadway actors with multiple Tony awards and Tony nominations, because Jennifer has a world-class voice and everybody else should have a world-class voice the way Aretha had a world-class voice.

“So that was really important to me.

“I felt like Aretha is a superstar and there needs to be a certain kind of quality of artist in the movie, working to tell her story.

“I felt we should have superstars and we got that.”

The research was a pivotal aspect of the movie. Along the way, Tammy also got to learn about the woman behind the fame.

“I was really fascinated by the more intimate details of her life.

“And that was the stuff, at the end of the day, that I thought, was the glue that holds the movie together. The career stuff, that is certainly fascinating.

“But it is the choices that she made behind closed doors.

“That’s the thing I think gives the movie its heart and soul and I think that speaks to who she was. And that I hope is a compelling part of the film.”

So far the movie is getting pretty favourable reviews, which is a testament to Tammy’s devotion to capturing the essence of the Queen of Soul in a way that inspires the viewer while celebrating the legend.

“Respect” is currently showing in cinemas, nationwide.

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