Penning Aretha Franklin’s story for the big screen was “the honor of my life,” Respect screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson tells EBONY. “I grew up listening to her. I couldn't imagine not doing it.”
An esteemed playwright, Wilson has also distinguished herself in television. As a writer and producer for the acclaimed drama and limited series The Americans and Fosse/Verdon, the Newark native has earned her own respect and recognition, including two Emmy nominations and a Peabody. The biopic Respect, however, is her big screen debut.
This good fortune came her way through dear friend Liesl Tommy, the acclaimed Tony-nominated director for Eclipsed, the African woman-centered play written by Black Panther actress Danai Gurira. Though born and partly raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Tommy spent most of her teenage years and beyond in the United States. With the help of Jennifer Hudson and the blessings of the Franklin family, Wilson and Tommy set out to give the Queen of Soul her due.
“When did the greatest singer of all time find her voice?” is the question Tommy posed to the studio and to Wilson. That answer for Tommy hits between roughly 1952, when Aretha turned 10, and 1972, when she was nearing 30. “Obviously, she had this really long and expansive life, but we really felt like, within those 20 years, we were able to answer the question,” explains Wilson.
Finding her own faith for herself, especially as a preacher’s kid, was critical to Aretha’s journey, says Wilson, who, herself, is a daughter of a preacher. Because Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (portrayed by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker), was a superstar preacher known for his “Million Dollar Voice” (several of his sermons can be found in the Library of Congress), finding her own voice was even more difficult for her. For over 30 years, her dad, who was paid handsomely for public appearances, led Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, serving as both pastor and civil rights advocate. His fame, especially during a time when the Black Church figured more prominently in everyday Black life, cast a huge shadow over Aretha.
“Being a preacher’s kid, there comes a point when you have to find out if this faith that you grew up works for you,” says Wilson. “And I think she had to experience that same journey and find a way for the church to speak to who she was as a woman and politically. She had to deal with a tremendous amount of patriarchy and sexism. And she was able to use her singing and her voice to get through those difficult times.”
Barbara Franklin, Aretha’s mother (played by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald), was also another pivotal figure in her life. Reverend Franklin may have been a preacher, but he was no saint. Reportedly, Barbara left him for impregnating a twelve-year-old girl when Aretha was around five or six. And though Aretha's time with her mother was short, her life and death left a deep and lasting impression.
“Aretha was extremely private, but when she did speak about her mother, she did speak about that loss,” Wilson tells EBONY. “It was just really important to show how influential her mother was in her life. Her mother divorced her father at a time when women—let alone Black women—let alone wives of prominent preachers, [didn’t do that]. It just wasn't done. And, I feel Aretha had an example of someone who stood up for herself and sort of demanded to be treated a certain way. And when she didn't get it, she left. Also, her mother played the piano; she was a singer and a musician as well. I just think she was an essential part of who Aretha became.”
Like her father, her first husband Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans), figured prominently in her life so Wilson took special care in crafting these men. “It was just really important that those relationships be portrayed in a really complicated way. That they were just not men who abused her, but that they were also men who loved her in different ways,” explains Wilson. “Just because someone says they love you doesn't mean that they treat you well. Making the relationship with her and Ted real, showing how they fell in love and why they fell in love, showing the good parts of him as well as the bad, and the same with her father [was important]. I do believe both of those men did love her, but that doesn't mean they knew how to treat her right.”
Moreover, after leaving White, Wilson says Aretha “was never in an abusive relationship again” and the film reflects that through her second marriage to Ken Cunningham (portrayed by Albert Jones ). Aretha’s political activism, Wilson says, was also a big piece of who she was, especially as a person.
“I think it's going to be a revelation to a lot of people in the audience just how political she was and how hard she worked for civil rights for Black people and women her entire life. And it wasn't something she bragged about,” Wilson insists. “It wasn't something that she would use for publicity. It was just part of her. She loved Black people; she loved us."
“And she grew up around these really deep political thinkers. Her father was a deep thinker, obviously [Dr.] King, who was a close friend of the family, and many, many others,” Wilson continues. “She grew up hearing all of these different discussions about Black empowerment and Black rights and saw these movements being planned at her dining room table.”
As is now well-known, the Queen of Soul's climb to stardom was not smooth. She gave birth to Clarence, the first of her four sons, months before her thirteenth birthday. And prior to hitting her stride as a hitmaker, she had many albums that failed. And while her children aren’t extremely prominent in the biopic, her grandmother Rachel Franklin, brother Cecil and her sisters Carolyn and Erma, are.
“She had the support of her family so that she could have a career,” notes Wilson. “Her sisters were just essential to her. They were essential to her creatively. They were essential to her spiritually. They were essential to her personally. They were her best friends. No one knew her better than her siblings. No one knew what happened in that house more than her siblings. And, so, she relied on them, and they relied on her. And they supported her through every difficulty. It was just really important to show the real love and friendship they had.”
Wilson has nothing but high praise for how Hudson brings Aretha to life in Respect. “This is the role that she was destined to play,” she raves. “I just think her performance is remarkable. The way she sounds. It’s just everything. She just embodied her with love and so much compassion.” And Wilson penned the words through which that performance shines.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies.