There’s an early scene in the musician biopic RESPECT where the mother of a young Aretha Franklin, sensing her daughter’s difficult path ahead, warns that she must “never fear any man” and that “your daddy doesn’t own your voice.” Sadly, for much of her life, Aretha Franklin would be justified in having a great deal to fear from the men in her life who would attempt to dominate and control her career and creative choices usually to the detriment of her professional and artistic growth.
At the start of her life, Aretha’s voice is very much owned by her father. Recognizing her talent, he is the person most responsible for putting her on the road to stardom. But he also engages in bullying, demonstrated in a scene where he insists that Aretha perform at a church service despite her grief over the untimely death of her mother. She refuses to sing but eventually yields to his demand when confronted with his mounting anger. He brings her to NYC to meet with Columbia Record executives and orders her to twirl around for the male gatekeeper. Cognizant of the white male power structure that dominated that era, she complies. Although she scores a record deal-a major accomplishment for a young woman of any era-her early recording career is consistently stymied by both the male executives producing her albums and her conservative father. These male figures fail to fully appreciate her unique talent and therefore are unable to provide her the musical guidance and creative support that would have allowed her to flourish during those crucial early years when she struggled to record a hit album. Aretha leaves Columbia Records for a renowned studio in Alabama where she initially flourishes, instructing the male musicians to “follow me” as she attempts to exert control of the musical arrangement and her life.
But her possessive husband almost derails her brave efforts. For all the conflict that arise from her relationships with her father, the far more tragic aspect of her life is the violence that marred both her first marriage and her childhood. Her first husband also tries to control her, engaging in a violent altercation with the manager of the Alabama studio where she is to record her album with carefully selected musicians to help her develop a new musical style. This has serious consequences for Aretha, professionally and personally, disrupting her recording sessions at a time when she’s floundering professionally and is now finally reaching the artistic heights that she’s capable of achieving. In Alabama, she soon finds herself the object of his violent outbursts. She returns to Alabama with a bruised eye. What is particularly wrenching about this moment in her life is the sense that her unique gift is slipping away because of the behavior of a husband incapable of change who will always hold her back. But she persists in completing the album and soon receives the attention she deserves. Aretha eventually grows in her confidence as she finds fame and wealth and no longer willing to tolerate his abuse, she finally divorces him.
Where the film falters is in the problematic portrayal of her childhood when she’s the victim of sexual abuse. The film briefly alludes to the abuse in one brief scene where a family friend enters her bedroom during a party, inappropriately joking that he could be her boyfriend. The next scene shows a withdrawn Aretha, clearly troubled by what occurred the previous night. The director Liesl Tommy explains that she didn’t depict the abuse because “There is no need to further re-traumatize our audiences. We are saturated culturally with images of violence on Black bodies, on Black women’s bodies.” It’s understandable why a film director, aware of the power of visual images and the exploitation of images of violence against African Americans, wouldn’t want to contribute to exploitative depiction of Black suffering.
But in omitting these scenes, the film fails to explain what happened to Aretha as a young girl. There are several lines of dialogue that allude to her having given birth, and a brief flashback, but it’s never clearly explained. Who was the father of her children? How did her own controlling father allow this to happen to her? How did she endure a pregnancy while she was still a child herself? What was her relationship like with these children? Did she participate in raising them? Did she resent their presence in her life? Such trauma must have devastated her, but these questions are never answered and the topic isn’t mentioned again. The audience is left to guess what transpired and how the suffering and trauma it must have inflicted on her may have contributed to her self-destructive behavior in adulthood. RESPECT depicts Aretha as struggling with alcoholism, at one point falling off the stage during a performance. She eventually seeks help, but the unresolved emotional damage may have manifested itself with seeking solace in alcohol.
Despite a life beset with challenges and personal tragedy, Aretha Franklin persevered where a lesser human being would have given up and surrendered to personal demons and the obstacles in her path. She never did. And for that she rightfully earned the respect of the world. But in order to fully appreciate her life story and extraordinary resilience, the film may have benefited from a closer examination of the aftermath of the sexual abuse inflicted upon her, rather then allowing it to remain elusive and shrouded in memory.
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