Mild spoilers ahead. In Respect’s final scene, an apprehensive Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) stands alone at the pulpit of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. The pews are packed with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. Franklin takes a breath and breaks the silence as she sings the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” In this moment, the most powerful woman in soul music bares her soul, the trials and tribulations of her life, in the lyrics, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” And after Franklin’s long quest for “hits,” Amazing Grace goes on to be her most successful album with more than 2 million copies sold upon release.
I didn’t expect to cry watching this scene.
Out of all the emotional moments in the movie, Franklin standing in that church reminded me that being in the presence of the divine is something so hard to describe but so easy to feel; it’s unexpectedly consuming. A few years ago as I sat in my church, while the Praise Team sang hymns, I found myself embarrassed at the tears that sprang. It was as if right there in the lyrics were the refuge and answers I needed to get through the past and prepare for the future. This unpredictable relief that I felt then was what Franklin must have felt when she stood at the podium and sang “Amazing Grace,” as if she were the only person in the room. This was where she belonged, where her musical identity was formed — much like it is for star Jennifer Hudson.
“Our biggest base and foundation as a people has been the church,” Hudson tells Refinery29. (“Amen,” I respond.) “It's every bit of my life,” she continues. “It’s every bit of what has brought me through everything that I've been through. ... It was so amazing to start in the church and end in the church.”
In Respect, out Friday, Hudson plays the Queen of Soul, taking us from Franklin’s early years as a wide-eyed gospel singer eager to launch a pop career to the highs and lows of becoming one of the biggest musical artists of all time. The movie touches on the tension between her desire to march with family friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and her father’s tight grip on her life as well as the ebbs and flows of her marriages. And the movie wouldn’t be complete without glamorous scenes of Hudson’s own renditions of Franklin’s most iconic songs. But perhaps most profound is the cyclical and quite literal come-to-Jesus structure of Franklin’s life.
While most people associate Franklin with the success of anthems like “Natural Woman” and “Respect,” those years are long past in the film’s closing chapter. After a tumultuous and abusive marriage with Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and mounting problems, including a struggle with alcohol, weighing down her career, Franklin decides to change course. Much to the surprise of her label, she announces that she will create a live gospel album; the deliberate choice is not just a tribute to God but also an ode to her own redemption story. She needs this record – and the church — to root her.
When we talk about the church here, it’s important to know we mean the Black church. It’s the same church that rose out of evil to give enslaved people respite from the heat, abuse, and excruciating labor. It has gotten congregations through segregation during Jim Crow and continued to instill activism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The Black church also inspired singing greats like Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston, and CeCe Winans, all of whose roots were in the gospel sound. The instrumentation, the raw and powerful vocals, and synchronous hand clapping and shouting conjure a release of emotion that’s unique and treasured in the genre.
Church isn’t just the physical place of worship; it’s the fellowship of minds and experiences. It’s where people dig in their pockets and slip you envelopes of money when you’re financially struggling and where you can find an army of support to pull you out of an abyss of loneliness. In the face of personal burdens, the role of the church in the lives of Franklin, Hudson, myself, and so many others is undeniable.
And it’s even more clear why after singing RnB and pop covers that Franklin found her way back to the spiritual space that inspired her to sing.
“It shows that that's where the power lies, within those roots,” Hudson says. And as a woman who knows her Bible, she quotes Proverbs 22:6: “If you train a child up in the way it should go, it will never part, honey. [Aretha] was the perfect ideal example of that. It wasn't until she trusted the gift that God instilled in her that we found our Queen of Soul. And it wasn't until when she went back to her roots, that she gained her greatest success. It lies within us, you know?”