Editors note: Deadline’s Read the Screenplay series debuts and celebrates the scripts of films that will be factors in this year’s movie awards race.
When it came to encapsulating the epic life, prodigious talent and seismic impact of the iconic Aretha Franklin, the creative team behind Respect had a massive tapestry from which to draw. But the challenge was exactly which aspects of the Queen of Soul’s enormous legacy should be given sharp focus?
“We wanted to have an arc,” said screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson, who crafted the story in close collaboration with her longtime collaborator, director Liesl Tommy. “We weren’t trying to create Aretha Franklin as she was, larger than life; we were trying to see how she came to be that. So it was about a 10-year-old girl named Aretha… as opposed to trying to show the world the Aretha they think they know.”
Even before Scott and Tommy’s involvement, the film’s lengthy development period stretched back years, prior to Franklin’s passing in 2018, and the R&B diva had an active hand in helping the producers zero in on the aspects of her life she thought formed the essence of her story, as well as handpicking Jennifer Hudson to play her.
“We worked with Ms. Franklin to come up with the right paradigm,” producer Jonathan Glickman says. “It’s always tough to say, ‘We’re only going to focus on this period of life.’ But it seemed very natural that we would start the movie with Aretha in church, and for that to end appropriately, we wanted to end with her in church, so we knew we were going to end at the “Amazing Grace” live album recording.
“The spine of the story would be a movie about a father-daughter relationship, and that gave us a focus to tell the period of her rise, and the origin story of her becoming the Queen of Soul,” adds Glickman.
Wilson – like Franklin, the daughter of a preacher – recognized the internal conflict that was sparked when the singer had to face her father’s imperfections. “When she broke up with her father, she broke up with the church and she had to find her own faith,” says the screenwriter. “I understand that struggle. It’s a very common struggle with preacher’s kids. Once you realize your father is human, you’re like, ‘Wait, God. God is that all fake?’ ”
At the core of the film was a powerful sense of the then-emerging feminist movement Franklin embraced on her journey, which helped fuel her rise; the singer in turn gave a boost to the movement, particularly as it affected Black women.
“She was learning those lessons of feminism and that at the time feminism was having a ride, so it was sort of happening at the same time,” Wilson says. “One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Aretha is singing ‘Natural Woman’ and all those women are looking up to her, no men around them, and singing the song to her. It’s just a powerful moment.”
Click below to read Wilson’s screenplay, from a story by her and Callie Khouri.