Three years after her death, on August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin continues to haunt the screens. In chronological order, we saw the documentary Amazing Grace, shot by Sydney Pollack in 1972, discovered in 2019, now available on DVD and on VoD platforms. Then came, at the beginning of the summer, the series Genius: Aretha, produced by National Geographic, a Disney subsidiary, with British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in the title role. Portrayed by Jennifer Hudson, dubbed by Aretha Franklin during her lifetime, the feature film Respect, produced by MGM, puts an end, no doubt provisional, to this exploration, which also relates to the exploitation, of one of the most remarkable trajectories of American music.
The two works of fiction are part of a recurring phenomenon in American popular culture: canonization through images. Developed in the days of the studios, the process was first applied to historical figures – Lincoln, Pasteur, Juarez – before being extended to artists – Chopin, Cole Porter, Van Gogh.
Genius: Aretha and Respect are part of a more recent wave, which takes into account African-American creation. Ray Charles (Ray, Taylor Hackford, 2004), James Brown (Get On Up, Tate Taylor, 2014), Nina Simone (Nina, Cynthia Mort, 2016) or Billie Holiday (Billie Holiday, a matter of state, Lee Daniels, 2021) found themselves shrouded in a Hollywood halo.
Respect applies to the letter the procedures of what has become a strictly codified genre. It is no longer a question, as in the days of the studios, of erasing the features likely to arouse controversy, the homosexuality of Cole Porter, for example, but of giving a meaning – preferably positive – to tragic elements of the biography, the addiction of Ray Charles or the violence of James Brown.
In the case of Aretha Franklin, tragedy is omnipresent: deprived of a mother by a domineering father who had forced his wife to leave the family home, before she died in an accident, the child prodigy was, at 14 years old, herself the mother of two boys. It was around this time in the singer’s life that the film by American-South African director Liesl Tommy begins. It is requested to take for granted the stigmata left by the initial trauma, which will be designated by “My demons” (just as the death of the “Genius” brother was presented as the cause of the singer’s mistakes in Ray). Whether young Aretha braves her father to marry swindler and pimp Ted White (Marlon Wayans), or sinks into alcoholism, the “demons” will be held responsible.
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