This Aretha Franklin Moment with Dinah Washington in ‘Respect’ Actually Happened to Etta James In Real Life
Aretha Franklin lived such a monumental life, you couldn’t possibly fit it all into a movie. The biopic Respect only attempts 20 years of Franklin (Jennifer Hudson)’s life, including her friendship with Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), but still leaves out some fascinating moments. However, screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson did make room for an incident from Etta James’s life in her telling of the Aretha Franklin story.
Scott Wilson spoke with Showbiz Cheat Sheet by phone on July 29 about Respect. She shared some additional Aretha Franklin stories that didn’t make it into the movie, and one she pulled from Etta James’ life. Respect is in theaters now.
This ‘Respect’ scene actually came from Etta James’ life
In Respect, Franklin is friends with Washington. When Washington attends a Franklin performance in a club, Franklin begins performing one of Washington’s songs. Washington puts a stop to that before Franklin gets to the chorus.
“That actually happened to another jazz singer, but the incident seemed very true to their relationship,” Scott Wilson said. “So I gave it to Aretha instead.”
Etta James was the singer in Washington’s position. The singer who tried to sing James’ song with James in the audience did not become famous like Franklin.
“It actually wasn’t Dinah Washington, it was Etta James,” Scott Wilson said. “I don’t remember the singer who did it to her but that incident happened to Etta James.”
‘Respect’ would have included more of Aretha Franklin’s Civil Rights work if they had time
Respect shows young Franklin meeting Martin Luther King, and later performing at his funeral. Scott Wilson said earlier drafts of the film included more of Franklin’s Civil Rights work, but they had to be cut for time.
“All the drafts had it because obviously, her father was huge in the movement,” Scott Wilson said. “He mentored King. Actually, there was more stuff in there that because of time we had to take off. So it was never not in there. There was a lot more stuff that we showed in her childhood initially, but we just had to cut. Initially there was more stuff showing King being mentored by C.L. A little more political discussions in the home but [director] Leisl [Tommy], for timing, couldn’t include that.”
Aretha Franklin’s sisters and fans originally had more screen time
Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore), Brenda (Brenda Nicole Moorer) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh) are in Respect. Scott Wilson wished she could have included them more.
“There was a bunch of other stuff, scenes with the sisters that we had to cut,” Scott Wilson said. “Some other stories with C.L., with Ted [White] just showing more of their relationship and showing more textures to the relationship that we had to cut for time. In particular, Carolyn and her relationship with her sisters was just central to her life. There were some other conversations that had to be cut for that.”
Respect shows one grateful fan encountering Aretha in a hotel lobby. Scott Wilson said that happened to Aretha around the world.
“Especially when she did her European tour, they were in Spain for Aretha,” Scott Wilson said. “That’s something that’s now also talked about, how big she was overseas. So there were a ton of stories of people who were, and especially people in political movements, who took those songs to heart. We show sort of excepts of a birthday party. In that scene, when she was walking down the stairs, we had a lot of encounters with her and different fans but which they had to cut for time.”
What Tracey Scott Wilson hopes ‘Respect’ viewers learn about Aretha Franklin
Respect has two hours and 25 minutes to show viewers sides of Aretha Franklin they never knew.
“I just think the word genius is thrown around a lot, not necessarily when it’s true,” Scott Wilson said. “In this case I really think it’s true and I really hope they come away with an understanding of her brilliance, but also of her deep, deep humanity.”
Scott Wilson also said the ages of 10 to 30 were significant for Aretha’s growth.
“We want to answer the question, how did the woman with the greatest voice in the world find her own voice?” Scott Wilson said. “That was another parameter that really helped to focus the storytelling as well. This idea of how she became the queen of soul.”