“When I was brought onto the project by my good friend and colleague, Liesl Tommy, she pitched that it was going to be from age 10 to age 30,” explains Tracey Scott Wilson, the screenwriter for the Aretha Franklin biopic, “Respect,” starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. “Having that frame before I started was instrumental in me accepting the job. I knew that 20 years was a manageable amount of time. The idea of taking her on way into her 70s is just too daunting.”
“Respect” chronicles the rise of Franklin from a young singer in her father’s church to the Queen of Soul’s live recording of her most successful album, “Amazing Grace.” For Wilson, getting to know Franklin’s personal story “before she became the grand diva” was one of the biggest joys of working on the film. “Seeing her become that Queen of Soul involves a lot of humor,” she describes. “One of the things I was glad to bring out in the movie was how close she was to her sisters and how close she was to the women in her life. That was instrumental in shaping her.”
Franklin was a notoriously private person throughout her life, but Wilson maintains that wasn’t a barrier while creating this film. “She wanted her story to be told,” the screenwriter explains. “She didn’t put any barriers in place. Her niece and cousin were very helpful in terms of helping us to get it right. Also, Jennifer knew her and sang for her. There were a lot of people around her who were able to put us in check, even in terms of the way she walked and the way she talked, how she faced the audience when she was playing. All those sorts of details really helped to shape who she was.”
Wilson “had nothing but preconceived notions” about Franklin before taking on the script. “They were all wrong,” she admits. “I grew up listening to Aretha. You think you know her because you know her music so well. I can’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t heard her music. I thought I just knew her. I didn’t know that she had nine albums before her seminal album, ‘I Never Loved a Man.’ I didn’t know that she was such a proficient jazz musician. I love jazz and she was hanging out with the big boys. If you couldn’t play, you weren’t going to play with them. The fact that she grew up in a house where Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington would just come and jam at their house, yet somehow she rose above that. Somehow she was even exceptional in that environment. I had nothing but total awe and respect for her.”
Wilson is a Writers Guild Award-winning screenwriter for her work on the 2019 limited series “Fosse/Verdon” and the acclaimed drama series “The Americans.” “I still remember the first big awards I ever attended was the Emmys,” she recalls. “They flew us out to L.A. They had a fancy car picking us up. The car dropped us off and I was going into the hotel and coming out are RuPaul and Thandie Newton. They looked absolutely beautiful! They were coming down and I was coming up and I was like, ‘This is surreal!'”
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