The Respect She Deserves: Treasure Trove of High Powered Stars Join Aretha Franklin Biopic

“As a storyteller, hers is the kind of story we all dream of telling,” ‘Respect’ director Liesl Tommy says of the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, which starts filming Nov. 1.
Photo: Amy Sancetta (AP)

In 1967, Aretha Franklin famously sang “Take care, T.C.B.” as a refrain on her signature song Respect.

A little over a year after the late, great Queen of Soul’s death, at age 76, producers of a long gestating biopic is literally taking care of business.

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A treasure trove of well decorated talents have come on board for the MGM feature, titled Respect, aiming to celebrate the life and legacy of the 18-time Grammy Award winning music legend.

Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, history-making Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and nine-time Grammy Award winner and two-time Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige have joined the Liesl Tommy-helmed film, which is front-lined by Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson and getting underway in Atlanta this fall.

Tony and Grammy Award winner Heather Headley, funnyman Marlon Wayans, Broadway powerhouse Saycon Sengbloh and four time Emmy Award nominee Tituss Burgess, have also been announced alongside Marc Maron, Tate Donovan and newcomer Skye Dakota Turner.

Tommy, a South African born Tony Award nominee best known for her theater work, is directing the drama, which is the first authorized feature chronicling Franklin’s rise to fame in the 1960s and 1970s and some of her tumultuous relationships.

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The Queen of Soul, circa 1973.
Photo: AP

Whitaker will play Franklin’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin., the prominent Detroit preacher who was a nationally renowned evangelist with the “Million Dollar Voice.”

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Wayans will play Ted White, Franklin’s first husband, whom she married when she was 19 and who was abusive.

McDonald will play Franklin’s mother Barbara Siggers, who abandoned the family when she was just a child and died a few years later under mysterious circumstances.

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Sengbloh will play her elder sister, Erma, who was a great singer in her own right (the original version of Piece of My Heart) while Kilgore will play Franklin’s sister Carolyn, the songwriter of the classics Ain’t No Way and Angel.

Blige will play the legendary Dinah Washington, who Franklin has cited as an early musical influence.

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Burgess, currently starring in Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name, has been tapped to portray Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, a close family friend who made history with Franklin with 1972’s Amazing Grace opus.

Headley will portray gospel music pioneer Clara Ward, who was also one of Franklin’s musical influences — and her father’s lover.

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Maron will play legendary Atlantic Records music producer Jerry Wexler, who shepherded Franklin to superstardom in the later 1960s and 1970s.

Donovan stars as John Hammond, the Columbia Records producer who brought Franklin out of gospel music into the world of pop/jazz standards in the early 1960s.

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Turner, who is making her Broadway debut as Young Anna Mae Bullock in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, will play Franklin as a child..

Playwright and director Liesl Tommy has been tapped to direct the Aretha Franklin biopic ‘Respect.’
Photo: Charles Sykes (AP)
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“I am thrilled with the incredibly talented cast we have assembled for our film, and I’m so proud that Ms. Franklin entrusted us to tell her story and to share it with the world,” Tommy, who helmed Danai Gurira’s acclaimed 2016 play Eclipsed on Broadway, said on Friday.

“As a storyteller, hers is the kind of story we all dream of telling. Her music has inspired me since I was a little girl, and the milestones of her life and career have shown us all how to strive and thrive. To have this powerhouse group of actors — and the phenomenal talent of Jennifer Hudson in this iconic role — means we have the chance of making this film as transcendent as her glorious life and legacy.”

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The film, which begins shooting on Nov. 1, will feature the songs Respect, I Say a Little Prayer, Think, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, You’ve Got a Friend, Dr. Feelgood, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Spanish Harlem and Young, Gifted and Black.

The film will also feature Ain’t No Way, Precious Lord, There’s a Fountain Filled With Blood, Amazing Grace and Chain of Fools.

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Surprisingly no songs were announced from her years at Arista Records with music titan Clive Davis.

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Hmmm.

 

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Karu F. Daniels

Hailing from "the thorough borough" of Brooklyn, Mr. Daniels has written for The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, Essence, VIBE, NBC News, The Daily Beast, The New York Daily News and Word Up!