Sunday, December 5, 2021

Casting Her Spell

Jennifer Hudson mesmerizes in a new biopic about the legendary Queen of Soul.

Her songs are firmly ensconced in the canon of American music, and her remarkable voice and larger-than-life personality are forever woven into the fabric of our popular culture. So ever since it was announced that Hollywood was bringing the story of Aretha Franklin to the silver screen, the wait has felt interminable. 

Hailey Kilgore stars as Carolyn Franklin, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin in RESPECT, A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

The anticipation heightened following the Queen of Soul’s passing in 2018. Then, a resurgent movement for racial justice reinforced Franklin’s cultural significance — by recalling her role in creating an indispensable soundtrack for the spirit of Black resilience and resistance at the center of the civil rights movement. 

Jennifer Hudson, who stars in “Respect,” is a natural fit for the role of a child prodigy and extraordinary woman whose journey to superstardom began and ended in the church. And though Franklin handpicked the Academy Award winner and “American Idol” alum for the part — which delves into the little-known story of how Franklin found herself — she had to earn it. 

“After ‘American Idol,’ Aretha Franklin was doing a show in Maryville, Indiana and I wanted to open for her,” Hudson recalled. “Everyone knows 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 many moments I shared with her. I find especially now, she has been a huge guide for the structure and spirit of my career.” 

It turns out that the opportunity put Hudson on a path to her destiny. 

“I had a dream for myself after ‘Dreamgirls’ — coming off something as big as that? And I said the only thing that could top that would be to play Aretha Franklin,” she said. “And I don’t know if she heard me or if she had that same thing in mind. But, right after I won my Oscar for ‘Dreamgirls,’ Ms. Franklin wanted to meet me … in New York. Over 15 years ago. That’s how long we talked about this. We sat down, and we talked about me playing her. And she told me I was very shy, asking me, ‘Are you shy or something?’ I remember telling her, ‘Well, I am sitting here talking to Ms. Aretha Franklin.’”

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