Respect

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin

It would easy to go all hatey on Respect, a biopic of the life of Aretha Franklin, but instead let’s take it for what it is – the authorised version, the Stations of the Cross of a towering talent who even old, sick and with her voice in ruins could yank a tear, if not sobs, from the coldest of hearts. As we can see at the end of the film in actual footage from Aretha’s performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King which, perhaps unwisely, is shown over the end credits.

Jennifer Hudson never quite manages anything similar, brilliant though she is. Choose your biblical metaphor – she’s Daniel going into the lion’s den, David taking on Goliath. Except, against all expectation, they won and it’s hard to believe anyone could have triumphed here. Hudson deserves all the gongs going for trying. In the showcase finale, where she recreates Aretha’s performance singing Amazing Grace (the one that featured in the 2018 documentary of the same name), all the notes are in all the right places but something’s missing – the magic.

Trad rather than bad, Respect takes us from Aretha the child prodigy – aged maybe 10 – being fetched out of bed to sing at her minister father’s regular parties (and being interfered with by one of the guests). Then on through her struggle to assert herself as her own (natural born) woman, getting out from under first the father and then husband/manager Ted White before hitting the big time. And then further on still, through the glory years and on to the recording of the Amazing Grace documentary in 1972. At which point, wisely, since here Aretha is at the absolute peak of her career, director Liesl Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri graciously brings down the curtain.

Dad and Aretha head to a record company meeting
Going up: CL and Aretha Franklin



The film is shot in that reductive nicotine palette that seems popular when telling stories about black people from back in the day – as if, you know, brown skin, brown everything – the production design is also heavy on the earthy colours.

But let’s talk about the good things – Skye Dakota Turner as the young Aretha. Surely she can’t be singing, a young girl with a voice like that. She is. Damon Wayans is also spectacular as the aggressive (but understandably so, for the most part) Ted White, Forest Whitaker puts in another reliable Forest Whitaker performance as CL Franklin, tough man of god and stern patriarch. Mary J Blige is (again) underused, here as Dinah Washington, the jealous star from yesteryear who knows Aretha is going to sail right past her. Kimberly Scott as Mama Franklin. Marc Maron, after his turn as David Bowie’s fixer in Stardust, another musical role, here playing Jerry Wexler, the man who took Aretha away from John Hammond (Tate Donovan) at Columbia Records and turned her career around at Atlantic by ditching the “black Judy Garland” approach and going all in on soul (this is the man who coined the term rhythm and blues, after all). The guys playing the Muscle Shoals musicians who assisted Aretha’s rise to the top. Sketched, nicely played.

Aretha went to a dark place, she had demons, we are repeatedly told rather than shown (one drunken episode and a couple of rages notwithstanding) and her civil rights activism is also, similarly, spelled out in explication-rich scenes that seem to be there almost out of contractual obligation. By way of compensation there are a some nice Hollywood moments when the formula just comes good – like Aretha and Ted arriving at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, finding that everyone outside the studio is black and is picking cotton, while all the guys inside are white and insisting they can play this music. They can.

There is the music though. What made Aretha special was that she was both a musician (pianist, writer, arranger) and a singer. She both had a voice and knew how to use it. And she had some tricks up her sleeve which could lift any song, like her octave-leaps. Sometimes she’d swoop up there, other times she’d just pop a high note out from nowhere, like a golfer sinking a hole in one. Hudson cannot quite do that. No one can. And she wisely ducks the more extreme manifestations of Franklin pyrotechnics, delivering instead an impressive impression of the Queen of Soul.

Respect is what it’s called and respect is what it gives. Maybe too much.




Respect – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



I am an Amazon affiliate






© Steve Morrissey 2022









Bamboozled

Savion Glover and Tyheesha Collins in Bamboozled

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 February

 

 

The first minstrel show, 1843

On this day in 1843, the Virginia Minstrels led by Dan Emmett became the first full-length black minstrel show in the USA.

They’d tested and previewed the show at other venues but it was on 6 February that the show opened at the Bowery Amphitheater New York.

The show had a three-act structure – four guys sitting in a semi-circle, singing songs, telling jokes and just generally being entertaining; followed by a front-of-curtain variety segment; finishing off with a spoof/skit/satire piece.

Minstrelsy goes back as far as you care to look – to the medieval bards of Europe or the griots of West Africa at least – though the American version is complicated by the fact that it was white people performing in blackface who seem to have originated the first shows, before black people in blackface took over.

The first genuinely American form of theatrical entertainment, it was wildly popular both at home and abroad, with all classes of people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Theatre chains opened catering specifically to minstrel shows.

Slavery was always in there somewhere, overtly or covertly, especially as abolitionism and later Civil War were dividing the country. Minstrel shows are often criticised now as offering little more than unthinkingly buffoonish, non-threatening, compliant black stereotypes – Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammy etc – but the same criticisms were being made back then, along with another familiar complaint: that the songs, speech and entertainment on display lacked real authenticity.

However, for the performers concerned, some of whom did what they could to advance the cause of freedom and equality with the tools they had to hand, the minstrel shows meant a living wage, and it undoubtedly opened the door to mainstream showbiz for African Americans, as it also opened American entertainment, in a mostly pre-movie age, up to the world.

 

 

 

Bamboozled (2000, dir: Spike Lee)

Spike Lee charges in where nobody else dared go, in what is one of his best films, a bizarre comedy about black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (an excellent Damon Wayans) who, frustrated by the constant rejection of his ideas (they’re “too white”), decides not to quit but instead get himself sacked – the severance package beckons.

So he comes up with the most outrageous idea he can think of. It’s a “coon show”, his words, called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

It will star two homeless black guys he passes on the street every morning, now renamed Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, and it’ll be set in a watermelon patch in Old Alabamy.

But, in a twist borrowed from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Delacroix’s minstrel show is a hit and he now has to serve up extreme racist material as entertainment week in, week out.

Bamboozled isn’t the sort of film that floats every boat – it isn’t subtle, for a start, and its message has been diluted slightly by time. But it does make its point – that for all our holier-than-yesterday posturing, black people are still working the old minstrel stereotypes, appearing on TV and movies in comedies but rarely fronting serious dramas, and playing up to the negative image of the gangsta rap video, or so says Spike Lee in no uncertain terms.

Why it works is because it is so fearless and feels as if it’s been composed of the sort of outraged stories black performers share when they’re in a bitching mood. In fact it’s falling over itself with anger at times, and towards the end the whole thing does start to collapse into melodrama.

Up until then though it’s been a series of “can he say that?” remarks spun together to make the point that black people are so tied up in knots by political correctness, black consciousness, history, racism and the constant demands for positive representation that they’ve no idea how to do the right thing (to borrow a phrase).

They’re bamboozled, in fact, a word Lee has possibly borrowed from a Malcolm X speech (which also turned up in Lee’s own film of the man).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A film that really takes no prisoners
  • Lee shoots it all on digital, giving it that authentic Sunset Beach TV look
  • The talented cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mos Def and Michael Rapaport
  • Pungent cameos from Al Sharpton, Mira Sorvino and Matthew Modine

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Bamboozled – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate