How did Aretha Franklin become the Queen of Soul? Screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson tells that story in Respect, opening in theaters Friday, Aug. 13, about the unparalleled vocalist whose spiritually ecstatic music brought gospel transcendence to the pop charts.
The movie stars Jennifer Hudson and is directed by Liesl Tommy, with Forest Whitaker as the singer’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and Audra McDonald as her mother, Barbara. Marlon Wayans plays her first husband, Ted White. Mary J. Blige plays Dinah Washington. Heather Headley is Philadelphia gospel singer Clara Ward. Marc Maron plays producer Jerry Wexler.
Wilson grew up in Newark and lived in Philadelphia in the late 1990s during graduate school at Temple University. Her plays The Good Negro and Buzzer have been produced by the Public Theater in New York, and she’s written for the FX series The Americans and executive-produced the network’s Emmy-winning Fosse/Verdon.
She has frequently collaborated with South African director Tommy, whose work, like her own, often addresses racial injustice. Wilson spoke with The Inquirer via Zoom about growing up as a preacher’s daughter, avoiding biopic pitfalls, and Franklin’s amazing grace.
Have you always been an Aretha fan?
Oh yeah. I grew up listening to her. It was was like drinking water. My grandmother lived downstairs and she played the Amazing Grace album all the time, James Cleveland all the time. My grandmother had some of Reverend Franklin’s recordings as well. And then upstairs we were playing all kinds of Aretha. I can’t remember a time not hearing her.
So upstairs was Saturday night and downstairs was Sunday morning?
That’s actually exactly what it was like. [Laughs]. Downstairs was always Sunday morning. Downstairs was a whole different vibe. I came from a family of four siblings so there was different music playing in every room. Aretha was inevitably in there somewhere.
You grew up in the church?
My father was a Baptist minister. I kind of count myself lucky in that I was a preacher’s kid but my father didn’t have a church so he would just do weddings and funerals every once in a while. I didn’t have that intense scrutiny that most preachers’ kids have. I attribute my sanity today to that.
Did that give you insight into Aretha Franklin?
I actually do think so because knowing a lot of preacher’s kids who did have fathers who were in a bigger spotlight, I am intimately familiar with those kind of pressures. … With that kind of spirituality. And when you grow up with a base of that, it’s something that just never leaves. And that’s part of Aretha’s journey in the movie.
There’s a feeling of claustrophobia early in Respect, until she goes to Muscle Shoals and records “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”
Yeah. Growing up in this prominent family and being seen and defining yourself through the eyes of your father. There’s pride in that. But at the same time she had to get away from him in order to find her voice.
And then she thought she had found her voice with Ted, but that was only part of it. She had to go another step to find out who she is. And just because you find out who you are, it doesn’t make it any less painful. It just means you’re making your own decisions, finally.
What didn’t you know about her that you were excited to learn?
It’s kind of crazy. I thought I knew a lot about Aretha, but when I started doing research I realized I knew nothing. I thought I knew because she had such a strong persona.
I didn’t know about how close she was with her sisters. I didn’t know about this extraordinary childhood that she had where she was surrounded by musical genius her entire life. You know the whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing? Well she had clocked 10,000 hours by the time she was 6 years old.
The word genius I think a lot of times is thrown around sort of willy-nilly. But in her case, truly it seems that she was touched. By the age of 5, she could just play anything that she heard. ... And if that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.
Tell me your Philadelphia story.
I got a graduate degree at Temple University. A master’s in English. I lived in one of those brownstones, right across Broad Street. I was planning to stay longer, but then my father died so I went back to New Jersey.
And started to write plays?
Fiction first. Then plays. Then TV. This is my first film.
You’ve got a long history of working with Liesl Tommy.
She’s one of my closest friends and collaborators. Early in my career, she directed a play I wrote called The Good Negro [set in Birmingham, Ala., in 1962], and we’ve worked together for many years.
How supportive of Respect was the Franklin family? There were objections to Genius, the TV series that came out earlier this year with Cynthia Erivo.
Aretha picked Jennifer Hudson to play her many years before she passed away. And when Aretha was unable to sing or do a performance, Jennifer would step in. They knew each other really well. She said, ‘This is the person I want to do it, and I want it to be a big-screen movie.’
Those were her only demands. We did have access to her family, her nieces, her cousin, so they were able to fill in on a lot of important details and let us know we were getting it right. But really, she didn’t place any restrictions in the contract saying, you can’t say this, or you can’t say that. She wanted her story to be told, and I think in a really honest way.
What was your strategy to avoid musician biopic cliches?
Liesl and I talked the pitfalls and enumerated them. Most musicians’ stories follow a similar trajectory. Things are very tough at a young age, they find their voice, there’s difficulty along the road, whether it’s substance abuse or something else. And they’re able to rise above that and have some artistic triumph. But a lot of times, you just feel like they’re hitting the highlights, and it just becomes a Behind the Music thing.
So we were determined to look at everything as a character in a movie, and not as Aretha Franklin. ... Whatever songs, whatever stories we include will be there to support this character named Aretha that we created. We always asked ourselves, how does this Aretha get there? How does she become the Queen of Soul?
Franklin’s support of Angela Davis and Black Nationalism in the 1970s might surprise people. Why was that important to include?
I think people will be very surprised about the Angela Davis stuff, about her political activities in the ‘70s, because it wasn’t something she talked about a lot. Just like singing, it was like breathing. Martin Luther King Jr. was mentored by her father, so he was having dinner at her house when she was a child. We look at it as being extraordinary, but to her it was normal.
Why is the Amazing Grace concert so significant?
I think that’s the moment when you actually see her embrace being the Queen of Soul, where she comes back to her spirituality. Everything comes together at that point. She was at the top of her game, she was on top of the charts all over the world, and then to make a purely gospel album — it wasn’t supposed to be part of her trajectory. She did it because she needed to heal herself.