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Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in "Respect." (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert)

Jennifer Hudson says lots of “Respect” went into playing Aretha Franklin

After her film Respect, in which she stars as legendary singer Aretha Franklin, had wrapped at the beginning of 2020, Jennifer Hudson looked forward to getting it out into the world later that year. Little did she or anyone know at the time that Covid would strike soon after and put a halt to most everything entertainment related.

Feeling the film was an in-theater experience and not a virtual one, United Artists Releasing/MGM held its release back until this week. It was initially a nervous wait for the actress. “The first time they held it back I was a little wary about it, but by the second and third I was okay with it,” she says. “I’m the type person, when it’s meant to be, it will happen. After a while I said, ‘We can wait.’”

Jennifer Hudson
Hudson met with Aretha Franklin and had her blessing to play the role.

Hudson stars in the film, which was shot in Atlanta from September 2019 to February 2020. It delves into the life of the Queen of Soul, known for such hits as the titular track, “Chain of Fools,” “Do Right Woman” and many more. As a child in Detroit she sang in her father’s choir and struggled as an adult early on to produce hits, dealing with abusive husband Ted White (played by Marlon Wayans) and a record label that tried to position her as a jazz vocalist.

The project was a long time in the making. “Aretha and I had a meeting over 15 years ago about me possibly playing her, and it eventually manifested and here I am,” says Hudson. Franklin was involved with the film until she passed in August 2018.

Ironically, that meeting with Franklin wasn’t long after Hudson appeared on American Idol in 2004 and, surprisingly, was eliminated early on, placing seventh that season. As an actress and singer, Hudson has since gone on to a career in which she has won an Oscar for her role in the film version of Dreamgirls, also appearing in features such as Sex and the City, Sing and Cats. On TV she starred in Hairspray Live! as Motormouth Maybelle (co-directed by part-time Atlantan Kenny Leon) and made her Broadway debut in the revival of The Color Purple in 2015, portraying Shug Avery.

For the performer, who returned to Atlanta for a day of media promotion and to introduce an evening screening last week, playing the icon was scary. “She’s someone who we all knew, that we treasure and love, so that adds a lot of pressure,” Hudson admits.

Making the film and doing her research opened her eyes even more. Hudson did not realize Aretha had eight albums before her big hit “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You),” nor that she recorded jazz standards before traveling to Muscle Shoals to record an R&B album that launched her onto the charts. “I thought I knew all of her music up until that point,” says Hudson. “I also had no idea how much she participated in activism and how close she was to Dr. King.”

Unquestionably the film’s central figure, Hudson is full of praise for her co-stars, including Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as her controlling father C.L. Franklin, Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara Siggers Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington.

“Forest is amazing — to work with him is like a master class,” says Hudson. “I think people are also going to be blown away by Marlon, to see him in a different capacity. He is a comedian but he has taken on such an amazing role here.” Hudson also heaps praise on Skye Dakota Turner, who plays young Aretha.

Jennifer Hudson
Hailey Kilgore (from left) stars as Carolyn Franklin, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Saycon Sengbloh as Erma Franklin. “Respect,” (Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert)

Respect utilizes several local actors, including theater veteran Joe Knezevich. He had worked with the director Liesl Tommy earlier in an episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings TV series, also filmed in Atlanta. Knezevich thinks that might have tipped the scale in him being cast. He had a blast working on the film. “Liesl is a great person to be on a set with,” he says. “She has a background in theater and is very much an actor’s director. She leaves it up to the actors to follow their instincts in rehearsal.”

Knezevich worked five days over a two-week period at Atlanta’s EUE Screen Gems Studios and plays the character of Tom Dowd, the legendary Atlantic Records recording engineer and producer who worked with Ray Charles, Derek and the Dominos, the Allman Brothers Band and helmed some of music’s most iconic albums. His time on set was spent mostly with Hudson, Wayans and Marc Maron, who portrayed Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler.

“Jennifer is one of those people who are so huge and iconic that you expect when you’re on a set with them to have to keep your distance,” he says. “She is so not like that. She was so collegial and friendly. You can tell she is a big star when she is coming and going but on set she’s just another of the actors, collaborating and having fun.”

Hudson was happy to shoot in Atlanta, believing that the city’s scenery held up as convincing locations in the film, set predominantly in Detroit, where Franklin moved to with her family at the age of five.

Asked what she considered Franklin’s legacy, Hudson lets out a long laugh. “We’d be seated here forever to talk about that,” she says. “Her impact has been like no other and it deserves to be attributed in the best way we all can. She gave us all so much, and this [film] was an act of love from everyone from the director to the DP [director of photography] to the extras. Everybody was there out of love and respect for Aretha.”