Jennifer Hudson Recalls Final Conversation With Aretha Franklin

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MGM offered all the ingredients for a super soul Sunday as it premiered Respect at Westwood’s Regency Village Theatre.

Before cast, crew and filmmakers walked the black carpet, Donald Taylor and his L.A. Mass Choir assumed position in front of oversized letters spelling out the film’s title for a performance of “Walk in the Light,” a gospel classic released by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, on her 1987 gospel album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. They moved their act inside to perform below the big screen as guests took their seats, passing signage en route that read “Respect the Mask Mandate,” a warning of COVID-19 protocols amid renewed concerns over the delta variant.

But that didn’t stop a wave of gratitude from filtering through the festivities and from the mouths of nearly everyone involved in making the film, which marks the feature debut of director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson. “I feel so happy right now because I feel like I spent my entire career inadvertently preparing to direct this movie by working on musicals and Shakespeare, working in television,” Tommy told THR. “I got to make a movie about my hero, Aretha Franklin, with actors that I’ve admired and with Jennifer Hudson who is like a sister after we spent this time together. I feel so privileged and blessed. I also feel I’m at my most artistically powerful because everything I wanted for this movie is in this movie.”

That includes Hudson, who was personally selected by Franklin to play her. The two began conversations years ago, shortly after Hudson won an Oscar for her star-making turn in Dreamgirls in 2007. They stayed in touch and became longtime friends that would speak on a near-weekly basis. During a brief conversation with THR on the carpet, Hudson recalled her last conversation with Franklin, a chat that happened days before her passing at age 76 on Aug. 16, 2018. “The last time I heard her voice was August 8,” she explained. “It’s odd that here we are again, on August 8, three years later. Right after we spoke, they told me she was no longer competent enough to speak but she sang to me on our call and we talked about my son and his cooking. She loves to cook and so does he. I sent her a video of him cooking. I truly miss hearing from her.”

Draped in a custom, glittering Dolce & Gabbana dress with a silk chiffon veil, Hudson, who arrived with son David Otunga Jr., spent a lot of time talking about family, specifically paying tribute to Franklin’s family members, some of whom were in attendance. Franklin’s granddaughter Grace and son Edward performed “Ain’t No Way” and “My Girl,” respectively, during the afterparty that took place on Broxton Avenue outside the theater.

A few days ago, Hudson traveled to Detroit, where Franklin was raised and where many of her family members still live. There, she screened the film and spent quality time catching up. “They took me to her childhood home and we sat on the porch and reminisced,” Hudson said. “When people are icons and legends, people sometimes forget that there’s a person under there with a family. It was good to connect with them and acknowledge that. It was a beautiful moment.”

The Respect family also turned out in full force. Joining Hudson, Tommy and Wilson were actors Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Audra McDonald, Tate Donovan, Hailey Kilgore, Saycon Sengbloh, Skye Dakota Turner and Gilbert Glenn Brown, production designer Ina Mayhew, costume designer Clint Ramos, makeup department head Stevie Martin, hair department head Lawrence Davis and producers Scott Bernstein, Jonathan Glickman and Stacey Sher. MGM’s Kevin Ulrich, Michael De Luca, Pamela Abdy and Mark Burnett also turned out alongside United Artists’ Gerry Rich and guests like Timbaland, Jennifer Holliday, Debbie Allen, Michael K. Williams, Tori Kelly, Derek Hough, Jordin Sparks and Kenny Ortega.

Tommy called out many of her collaborators and asked them to stand for a round of applause ahead of the screening, thanking them for their contributions. “I hope everybody understands the love that brought us all here. Aretha Franklin gave us gifts unended. She never stopped giving to us,” Tommy said. “It was our hope that this film could be what film does when it’s doing its job — a piece of art that, when you return to again and again, in times of trouble, in times of celebration, will last into eternity because it is about the best of us and the parts of us that want to be better. That’s what she was, all the time, trying to be her best self.”

She saved Hudson for last and when her name was called, she sprinted (barefoot) to the front of the theater and offered brief remarks that played like a prayer. “God bless Aretha and her legacy and her beautiful, beautiful family, who is her legacy. Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity. In Jesus’s name…” And the audience responded with, “Amen.”

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