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.




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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Burden

Judy and Mike sitting on a log

Burden? As in “white man’s burden”? Ironically, no. There’s a white saviour theme running right the way through Andrew Heckler’s film but it actually takes its name from its key character, Mike Burden, a lifelong member of the Klan who saw the error of his ways.

With the flying of Confederate flags in the US an ongoing point of contention when this movie was released in 2018, Burden has timeliness on its side, and a core cast so accomplished most first-time directors would auction their mothers to get hold of them – Garrett Hedlund as Mike, Andrea Riseborough as the woman whose love makes him see the light, Tom Wilkinson as the local racist-in-chief and Forest Whitaker as the reverend fighting the good fight.

The action centres on a movie theatre, once upon a time a strictly “Coloreds Only” kind of place, which is now being turned into a Ku Klux Klan museum, complete with Confederate flag fluttering outside, by good ol’ boy Tom Griffin (Wilkinson), much to the disgust of the local black citizenry, vocally led by Reverend Kennedy (Whitaker). Burden is a repo guy who spends his days visiting poor people who haven’t been keeping up the payments on their TVs, but away from the day job is widely seen as the anointed successor of Griffin. Which is why the deeds to the building housing the theatre have been vested in Burden, so as to keep this South Carolina town’s cultural goad in white hands should anything happen to Griffin.

Hedlund plays Burden as so congenitally dumb and inbred that you can almost forgive his kneejerk racism as the actions of someone who knows no better. Judy (Riseborough) is Nobel laureate material compared to Mike, a thoughtful soul whose kid hangs out with the black kid of local man Clarence (Usher Raymond). It’s this relationship – Judy and Clarence – that is the pin on which this film turns, or it would be if Clarence weren’t just a cipher, as many of this film’s black characters are.

Reverend Kennedy outside the KKK Museum
Rev Kennedy outside the KKK Museum



Whitaker’s Rev Kennedy being the exception, a man of integrity, vigour and compassion who takes in Mike and Judy when they’re at a particularly low ebb and feeds them, thus eventually leading to a damascene conversion by Mike.

The film is set in the 1990s but Heckler deliberately makes the era a little hazy. It could be any time from the 1950s to the 2020s, and when a crowd gathers outside the KKK Museum at one point to protest, and chants “no justice, no peace” in an echo of Black Lives Matter the effect is only mildly anachronistic.

It’s a good looking film and well acted, with the cast all delivering more than was there on the page, but Heckler seems so concerned that we might sympathise with the wrong aspects of Mike and Judy’s characters that he leaves them under-developed – there’s just not very much to get hold of, particularly with Judy, who does little more than mope about when she’s not declaring her hot love for Mike.

Really this is all about Mike, who’s the only person to get an emotional arc, and even his is slow to get into gear. It’s only in the final act when Mike has to start fighting his way out of his corner that we start to get a real handle on his personality.

If drama is all about friction – between and within characters – it’s the element this undoubtedly heartfelt film could do with more of. Sanctimony hangs heavily on Burden, a two hour movie that would be vastly better with half an hour of running time removed. Which is something of a pity, since it’s a true story and one worth telling. The real Mike, Judy and the Reverend all appear over the end credits as a seal of authenticity.



Burden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Butler

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

 

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

 

 

7 March

 

Police attack Alabama marchers, 1965

On this day in 1965, a day that subsequently became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators outside the town of Selma, Alabama. Between 500 and 600 demonstrators were marching to protest against the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who had been shot by a policeman after a previous civil rights march on 18 February. Any grouping of more than three civil rights campaigners had been declared illegal by a judge, and the local governor, George Wallace, went on to declare the march a threat to public safety. At Edmund Pettus Bridge the marchers met state troopers, backed up by the large number of white males who had been deputised only that morning. At the bridge the commanding officer ordered the demonstrators to go home and refused to discuss anything with the leader of the march, Reverend Hosea Williams. The troopers attacked the demonstrators, hospitalising 17 and injuring many more. The publicity generated by the event ensured that the next march, held two days later and led by Martin Luther King Jr, would be attended by nearly four times as many people.

 

 

 

The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

The Butler is an example of a genre that’s usually stacked with well fed white people – the heritage drama – stacked with well fed black people. But being a story about black people in recent decades it inevitably dips into waters more political than you usually find in your average white heritage drama. It’s about the slow emancipation of black people, in other words. And following the old newspaper maxim that the best way to cover any awkward subject is to turn it into a human interest story, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong focus on the figure of Cecil Gaines, the poor black kid from the cotton-picking South who served in the White House in a variety of domestic roles for eight presidents from the 1950s onwards. A 50something Forest Whitaker struggles to look young under the presidency of Eisenhower, as the rookie butler who has swapped a life on the plantation – his mother raped, his father murdered – for the more genteel environs of the White House. But as we move on to JFK and Johnson, the age gap fades into insignificance as the butler butles (or whatever the verb is) invisibly while the various leaders of the free world discuss pressing events. Meanwhile, at home, Gaines is a severe but affectionate husband (to excellent Oprah Winfrey) and a tough-love dad struggling to bring his kids up to share his gradualist view of history. But one of his kids, brought up in the progressive, combative 1960s, becomes actively involved in the civil rights struggle. Too actively, as far as his father is concerned. Can a butler, a servant, make a contribution to the struggle? Is the “house nigger” (as Gaines is described early on) a man at all? These are the film’s big questions.
The answer is yes, as you might imagine. Don’t bother watching if you have any residual affection for the political stance of the Black Panthers, and other radicals who took more direct forms of action to secure their political objective. They’re not treated well. Not treated fairly, in fact. But though it would be easy to dismiss the film as a conservative screed, it’s the attempt to reconcile the twin prongs of black political progress that make it interesting.
Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by a Washington Post article about the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen, and together with director Lee Daniels he commits some of the cardinal sins of biopics – he tends to tell us stuff we already know, a tendency shared by Rodrigo Leão’s score, which also isn’t above deploying the musical equivalent of emoticons. Of the presidents, they’re all interesting in their way, though none has more than a blur-on appearance and a couple of lines to say. Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, surprisingly enough, fares best of the lot of them, all twinkles and folksy avuncularity. But Daniels’s strength as a director is in co-ordinating groups of people, of keeping a lot of balls up in the air. It’s an assured piece of storytelling which only now and then heads into melodramatic territory, which as we know from Precious and The Paperboy is Daniels’s special area of expertise.
Look out for Jane Fonda – Hanoi Jane back in the day – as Nancy Reagan. That’s a joke, a conservative joke, the casting equivalent of a “not so radical now, Jane, eh?”. We live in different times, Lee Daniels’s times, not Hanoi Jane’s. “Slowly slowly catchee monkey”, that’s the film’s message. Or maybe “they also serve who only stand and butle”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • See Forest Whitaker once again subsume himself to his role
  • The stunt casting of the presidents – John Cusack as Richard Nixon!
  • A history of the civil rights struggle from a different perspective
  • Great support from the likes of David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Butler – at Amazon