Respect director Liesl Tommy was joined by writer Tracey Scott Wilson, cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau and production designer Ina Mayhew at Deadline’s Contenders: New York award-season event Saturday to discuss their movie about legendary singer Aretha Franklin.
From a screenplay by Wilson (The Americans, Fosse/Verdon), Tommy’s feature directorial debut stars Jennifer Hudson as Franklin and focuses on first two decades of Franklin’s life — from her upbringing as a musical prodigy through the loss of her mother to a rise to stardom that defied the constraints of an abusive marriage and a patriarchal system. Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess and Mary J. Blige co-star.
“Aretha Franklin, in addition to being a musical genius and a political activist, also had enormous style,” Tommy said on the panel for the film from MGM/United Artists. “I wanted this film to feel like a great big lush classical Hollywood film… It should be a fantasy grounded in something gritty… but it was my gift honestly to Black women who loved movies and never saw themselves in classic Hollywood movies. That’s how I framed it in my head.”
“One thing, like Liesl said, about beauty and really showing Black families,” says Mayhew, “that this is how it was in the ’60s and ’70s, that there was this wealth, there was this beauty, there was this attention to beautiful settings and current furnitures. I think people are actually going, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize that she lived such a wealthy life,’ and it was really important to portray that accurately and in detail and enhance it.”
For the film’s third act, which takes place in the ’70s, Morgenthau says “it’s a little bit more deconstructed and its a little bit more pushed in the color and more handheld. She’s kind of going through a more tumultuous period in her life, the country is going through a tumultuous period… a little bit like today. We were using anamorphic lenses to build a world that Liesl saw, with this great icon of American music.”
“We wanted to have an arc,” said Wilson. “We weren’t trying to create Aretha Franklin as she was, larger than life, we were trying to see how she came to be that. So it was about a 10-year-old girl named Aretha… as opposed to trying to show the world the Aretha they think they know.”
In terms of feedback from black women, Tommy says “They love it. I think they feel seen. I think they feel valued. Aretha Franklin loved and advocated for Black women her whole life and I felt that the film should do that.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.