See Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in new Respect photos
In this exclusive still, Jennifer Hudson's Aretha Franklin — a daughter of C.L. Franklin, one of the most famed Black ministers of the mid-20th century — returns to her musical source in a Los Angeles church. "That’s one thing I always wanted to remind everyone, no matter how we approach the music in the film," Hudson tells EW. "Whether it’s a secular song or a gospel song, you cannot forget her roots... everything from 'Respect' to 'Natural Woman' to 'Never Loved a Man,' it always had that soul, that church, that gospel in it."
The relationship between Franklin (Hudson) and her first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), as seen in better times in this exclusive still, had its dark and ugly moments — though Wayans, for one, was eager to show it all: "Rarely do you find a love that’s just perfect.... People, we fall madly in love, and we find ourselves tethered to toxic things."
Franklin, Hudson tells EW, "had this presence but this stillness about her, and not a lot of expression. So I would tell [everybody] on set, if you don’t feel uncomfortable when I’m around, then I’m not giving you Aretha at all," she laughs.
"I think Dinah loved Aretha," says Mary J. Blige, who portrays the revered torch singer Dinah Washington in the film. "She was a mentor and a family friend and someone that was really really real and honest instead of the yes men that were kissing her ass most of the time.... But it was a tough love, and the reason I know that," Blige breaks off with a laugh, "Is because Aretha and them, they did that to us! They were tough with it. We didn’t know if they liked us or not."
Forest Whitaker takes on the role of Aretha's father ,C.L. Franklin, the famed Detroit preacher whose mentorship of a certain young minister would play a formative role in his daughter's childhood. "She was around a lot of conversations," explains the Oscar-winning actor, who dived heavily into research for the part. "Because C.L. and Martin Luther King Jr. were close friends, and he actually worked with Martin to do some of the marches. Particularly the Walk to Freedom walk in Detroit —that’s where Martin said his ‘I have a dream” speech for the first time."
Carolyn Franklin (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma Franklin (Saycon Sengbloh) flank Hudson's Aretha at the piano during a late-night songwriting session. "Her sisters sang backup with her for years," says screenwriter Tracy Scott Wilson, "So they had this really complicated relationship where they loved each other deeply but they fought constantly. It was just a very deep, complex relationship."
Skye Turner (left) — who also starred last year on Broadway as a young Tina Turner in Tina — portrays the young Aretha, alongside six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as her late mother, Barbara. "I don’t remember my life without Aretha. That’s just a part of Black American if you’re of a certain age," McDonald admits. "She was in your house in some way shape or form.... So for me it was wonderful to be a part of it just to learn more about her history and more about her mother."