Chronicling the life and career of someone as massively famous as Aretha Franklin is no easy feat. But theater director Liesl Tommy was up for the task, taking Respect, a biopic about the Queen of Soul starring Jennifer Hudson, to the next level. She introduces the audience to Franklin at a young age, demonstrating her prodigious singing talents. The film then tracks her upbringing and teenage years—in which she toured the U.S. south with her famous preacher father (and eventual manager, for a time) and Civil Rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr.—and the various obstacles she faced within her own family, as her husband (who also became her manager) abused her while she tried to find her voice. Tommy also made the choice to not just focus on a singular moment in which Franklin began a meteoric rise to the top of the charts, but included her failures as well—her early albums were flops, and while she sounded good singing them, they just weren’t what people wanted to hear on the radio.
Ultimately, the film according to Tommy is a “meditation on perfection” and Franklin’s messy, emotional journey toward excellence. The South African director, whose cinematic education is quite the global one, makes her feature film debut with Respect, and used various reference points from Classic Hollywood to stylize her visual portrait of an icon. Here, she discusses the impact that films like James Cameron’s Aliens and George Lucas’s Star Wars had on her as a young creative, and breaks down the choices she made for Respect, which will be released in theaters on August 13.
You have a background in theater, and are the first woman of color to receive a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play. How does a theater director decide they want to direct a film?
I’ve always been a film fanatic. I didn’t come from a family [that went] to the theater regularly; My brother and I used to rent a lot of movies at Blockbuster. When I started acting, it was in theater, and that’s what put me in a theater trajectory.
There was a point in my theater work where I started doing a lot of multimedia work. Sometimes I used live feed videos, sometimes prerecorded. There was one show that I did called Party People about the Black Panthers, and that took place in an art gallery so there were multiple monitors around the stage. Directing became a fun challenge of composing stage pictures and composing frames for the camera. I had a show go to Broadway, do very well, and right after I did a huge multimedia project for Disneyland, an adaptation of Frozen. I had an 80-foot giant LED screen that moved. So I was like, I think I’m working with camera now?
What sort of films were you drawn to as a child?
My dad’s best friend in South Africa had a movie theater called The Gem. It was in a colored township, which, in South Africa, means mixed-race people. My brother and I would go to the double features every Saturday and watch everything and anything. We would watch Bollywood movies, kung fu movies from the ‘70s, whatever they could get their hands on. I had a varied film education from a young age, and not necessarily with American films. I was fed a rich palette of genre, style, and culture in those movies, and when I came to the States I was obsessed with Star Wars. It changed things for me. I thought Star Wars, a movie about rebel fighters against fascism, was about South Africa and apartheid. I thought it was a metaphor for our lives and that somebody made a movie about us resisting the fascism that was apartheid. That’s when I realized I love genre, because you can morph metaphors into the storytelling.
How did that love of genre that you discovered at a young age impact your approach to theater?
As a theater artist, I made sure that I directed musicals. I directed dramas, comedies, Shakespeare, Chekhov—there was nothing that I felt I couldn’t communicate if I was compelled by the story in terms of form and style. I think that’s because I grew up seeing and identifying with so many different styles of storytelling.
How did you get your hands on the Respect project?
Somebody gave the studio and Scott Bernstein, the producer, my name. I was directing an episode of The Walking Dead in Atlanta when they called me. I was so excited because Aretha Franklin is my absolute favorite. I grew up listening to her, I don’t know a time when I didn’t know her music. I come from a musical family and in South Africa she was played all the time. In my heart, I knew what the movie should be, and when I got on the phone with them, I skipped the small talk and went straight into that. I said, it needs to start in the church and it should end in the church. I gave them the songs it should cover and the tagline I had in my head. The movie is about a woman who has the greatest voice in the world who is searching for her own voice, but does not know her own voice.
Aretha Franklin had a history of being an advocate for social justice and civil rights, which you’ve shown on the screen. Many people seemed to discover that after she passed away, but did you know from the jump that you wanted to include her relationship to some of the key figures in the Civil Rights movement?
I did. I’ve done a lot of work in theater around the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panther movement, so it was a time period I’m very familiar with, and I was familiar with her relationship to both eras. On a personal level, I grew up as a young girl during apartheid era South Africa, with people who were activists, people who spoke at length about our political world and the struggle for freedom like she did.
In terms of visual style and aesthetic, what were some of your reference points for the film?
I wanted to make a Classic Hollywood film. I grew up watching Grace Kelly movies, Alfred Hitchcock movies, with my grandmother. Movies with a beautiful, pristine style where everybody was perfectly coifed and dressed, and the production design was aspirational. But everybody was white in those movies. I thought about my grandmother and my aunts and all of those Black women who loved films of that era and never saw themselves. I wanted to make a movie that would be a visual feast, and feature Black women. The mid-century glamor and drama was deeply influenced by Classic Hollywood films. I love stories with messy, emotional, journeys. I am interested in what I call meditations on perfection.
What are some meditations on perfection that influenced you?
A Room With a View. Every single frame of a James Ivory film is art directed to an inch of its life. There isn’t a frame without an absolutely stunning Italian vista, or a music room that you’re gagging over how gorgeous it is. I’m also a huge fan of films from the ‘70s, where everything’s so gritty and dirty—that has power, too. But my references for this film were movies that I think nailed a visual feast, and an aspirational, unapologetic glamor. It’s all also inspired by Aretha—her music was perfect, and a meditation on perfection inside of a messy, emotional, glorious performance. The values of her music are the values of the film.
You chose to discuss a scene from James Cameron’s Aliens—the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien—for Freeze Frame, in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is smoking in a room and lets her cigarette dangle while smoke drifts around her. What about that scene is so impactful for you?
My favorite part of this movie is actually the beginning, when she is talking to all the corporate stiffs about her experience on the Nostramo in the first film, and none of them believe her, of course. Then, she’s in the room alone, and you see the hand collapsed on itself with the cigarette. It’s just smoking, burning itself out. Everything in that image is a picture of defeat. The camera slowly pans to her and she looks so haunted and sad, and your heart goes out to her.
I inject myself into these genre films, so to me, that sequence is a perfect metaphor for what it means to be a Black woman. You’re basically telling everybody that you’re experiencing bias, you’re experiencing racism, you’re experiencing this particular kind of racist sexism in the workplace, and no one believes you. Then you have to go home at night and be normal with your family and go back in there the next day and relive it all over again. There is this despair, but you have to carry on. I know that was not James Cameron’s plan, but the power of film is that it is supposed to activate the watcher’s imagination. I like Alien more than Aliens, and there are problems with the sequel in terms of capturing toxic masculinity culture, but that scene to me is the perfect continuation of the first film.
I was familiar with some of the trauma Aretha Franklin faced early in her life, but there was a lot I learned from the film about the abuse she endured from her husband.
We know this even today: how much work it takes to get anybody to believe you as a woman, and whether we’re talking about inappropriate behavior in the workplace, microaggressions in the workplace, or someone sexually assaulting you, women have such a hard time getting people to just validate their experience. To go back to something important in that Aliens scene, the film is spending time with a woman quietly while she’s thinking her thoughts. We still don’t have enough of that in cinema. There are so many movies about men where we get to watch them smoke and walk and drive, and they don’t have to justify anything.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Aretha while researching her for this project?
The fact that she had four albums that nobody bought. She was basically a rock star in the gospel music world as a teenager. She was on tour with her father, who was incredibly famous. She was on tour with Martin Luther King, Jr. and many dignitaries in the gospel world. Then she made these four albums, and experienced devastating failure. I think we, as audiences, assume that people at that level of talent just land on the scene and become stars. Even people who are gifts have to find their own way.
You also have a cameo in the film, as a fan who goes up to Aretha Franklin to tell her how much the music means to you. What inspired you to make that choice?
When we were casting that, I was like, I am the fan. I am this character, and I’m going to play it so that I can say the words I wish I could actually have said. I’m getting emotional now! I wish I could have said that to the real Aretha.