It’s hard to believe it’s been three years this month since Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul, succumbed to pancreatic cancer high atop Detroit’s Riverfront Towers, surrounded by her closest friends and family. Of course, her voice — that incomparable instrument, the sound the state of Michigan once declared a prized “natural resource” — will never be forgotten.
In her 76 years and beyond, the diva amassed the kind of accolades befitting American royalty. Eighteen Grammy Awards. The Presidential Medal of Freedom. A posthumous citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury for “her indelible contribution to American music and culture.” She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Ponder that for a moment.) And no less an authority than Rolling Stone magazine named her No. 1 among the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”
Now, however, comes the sincerest form of flattery: imitation.
In March, National Geographic presented an eight-hour, four-night docudrama, Genius: Aretha, featuring British actress Cynthia Erivo in the title role. And a new major motion picture, Respect, starring Academy Award-winning singer Jennifer Hudson as Aretha, is set to open in Detroit and elsewhere during the anniversary week of her passing this month.
A preview screening of Respect was not available to Hour Detroit prior to publication. But judging by the multiple trailers online, it’s clear that Hudson, a close friend of Franklin’s and handpicked by Aretha to portray her, pours everything she’s got into the role. “We know her as this legend, but there is a story to everyone,” Hudson told Rolling Stone. “Her life had so much depth to it, and it came through the music.”
Hudson is as obvious and natural a choice to play Franklin as Erivo was inconceivable. Best known for her Tony-winning role in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple and as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet, the petite South London native of Nigerian descent bears little resemblance to the Queen. And prior to the miniseries’ release, she expressed anxiety over how American audiences would react to a Brit portraying one of their musical idols.
“Can’t help being nervous,” she confessed to the Los Angeles Times. “When you put your heart and soul into something, you hope that when people watch it, that’s what they get.”
She needn’t have worried. When two biographies of the same person are released the same year, there is an inescapable urge to compare. And Respect will have to be Oscar-worthy to outdo the depth and brilliance of Genius: Aretha.
As a big-screen release, Respect boasts a more impressive cast overall. In addition to Hudson, there’s Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin; Marlon Wayans as ex-husband Ted White; and Mary J. Blige, Audra McDonald, and Marc Maron in supporting roles. However, with nearly eight hours as opposed to the movie’s two hours and 42 minutes, Genius: Aretha has far more real estate in which to explore the details of her story, from her traumatic childhood and early pregnancies to her abusive relationships and ongoing battles to control her musical destiny.
Members of Franklin’s family vehemently disapproved of Genius: Aretha without having seen it. Had they watched, they might have been astounded: Erivo transforms herself into Franklin, becoming totally believable and capturing the diva’s combination of strength and vulnerability. Whitaker, a renowned actor in his own right, will have to go some lengths to match Detroit native Courtney B. Vance as the Rev. C.L. Franklin — equal parts religious dynamo and philandering devil.
On a personal level, it’s one of the great voids in my professional life that, despite having worked as a pop music critic at one of Detroit’s two major dailies for a decade and having lived near Franklin’s original home on Sorrento Street, I never got the opportunity to interview her.
To make a very long story short, I gave her a negative review after one of those multi-act Cobo Center R&B concerts in the 1980s. She headlined it and came on after midnight, clearly weary and exasperated. I thought the criticism was warranted; Cecil Franklin, her brother, manager, and protector, did not. Access denied. So, I will have to content myself by watching these fascinating re-creations and wondering, What if?
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen clones.
This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.