‘Respect’: Jennifer Hudson’s greatest challenge — and how Aretha Franklin’s story mirrors Britney Spears’s struggles

You’d think the fact that Aretha Franklin personally handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her in a movie surely gave the former American Idol star turned Dreamgirls Oscar winner a boost of confidence accepting the gargantuan task of portraying the late Queen of Soul.

Hudson, however, says Franklin’s blessing only made her responsibility headlining the drama Respect more daunting.

“Just thinking about how dear she is to all of us, including myself — I’m a fan first so I understand the task, I understand the figure — it was like, ‘Oh my god. Where do you start?,’” Hudson, 39, admitted to Yahoo Entertainment during a recent press day for the film (watch cast and director interviews above).

Written by Tracey Scott Wilson and directed by Liesl Tommy, Respect follows the life of Aretha Franklin — who died in 2018 — from her childhood in Detroit to the gospel circuit to finding massive success in the 1960s and beyond, even as she struggled with personal “demons” and alcohol abuse. The film takes a hard look at Franklin’s battles in escaping the men who continually tried to control her, from her minister father (Forest Whitaker) to her abusive manager and first husband (Marlon Wayans).

Jennifer Hudson in
Jennifer Hudson in Respect. (MGM)

Acclimating to an era when women had far less agency proved especially difficult for Hudson.

“The biggest challenge in that was being able to conform to how women existed during that time,” says the actress-singer, who performs her own renditions of Franklin’s classics throughout the film. “I take up space in a room, and I’m very expressive and vocal. [But I had to remember], ‘I’m not Jennifer right now. I’m Aretha, in the ’60s, where women didn’t have a voice as much as we do today.”

As Tommy is quick to point out, though, sadly the circumstances surrounding Franklin’s life aren’t all that dissimilar from the conservatorship battle pop star Britney Spears has recently been engaged in with her own father.

“I wish I could say that that was a product of a time period, but we look at what Britney Spears is going through right now and we know that that’s not a product of the time period — it’s part of the burden that women bear living under patriarchy. Where people think that their lives are not their own,” Tommy says.

Tommy sees Franklin’s story as a movie “about this woman who has the greatest voice in the world trying to find her own voice. Because that is what I thought was the fascinating part of her 20s was about.

“Seeing her go through all of the struggles and some of that trauma is how we can really understand what an incredible person [she] is when she made it to the other side, and we get the triumph. To really glory in her success, I feel like you had to understand what she went through to get there.”

Respect is now in theaters. Watch the trailer:

—Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Steve Michel