How Much and in What Ways Does ‘Respect’ Respect Aretha Franklin? Let’s Find Out!

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Respect (CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Marc Maron, Audra McDonald, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Mary J. Blige, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Skye Dakota Turner

Director: Liesl Tommy

Running Time: 145 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Abusive Relationships and Racial Tension

Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Theaters)

Aretha Franklin biopic Respect keeps harping on the idea that the Queen of Soul didn’t start having hits until she focused on her own original efforts, and I kind of wish the movie had taken its own advice. Now, it obviously couldn’t be a completely thorough original. It is a biopic, after all. But Jennifer Hudson is talented enough to make me think that this movie isn’t really going to sing until she’s allowed to break free and offer her own unique interpretation. The most rousing moment of the whole film comes during the end credits when we get to see the real Aretha bring the house down at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors with a rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” (President Obama was having a GREAT time.) To be fair, Hudson and the makers of Respect are more interested in exploring the behind-the-scenes of Franklin’s story, but it is telling that they never quite achieve something as triumphant as the real deal.

The challenge of so many music biopics is combining idiosyncrasy with reverence. Those two impulses don’t really mix, and oftentimes biopic makers are much more interested in the latter than the former anyway. The title of Respect indicates that that’s very much the case here. That’s especially clear in one scene when Aretha attempts to perform a song by family friend Dinah Washington (an intensely regal Mary J. Blige) while Dinah is in attendance. It absolutely does not go so well, thanks to Dinah’s insistence that you don’t play the Queen in front of the Queen. That deference marks the entire movie. Within that boundary, Hudson is able to successfully explore Franklin’s trauma and resilience, but she doesn’t have room to leave her own inimitable signature.

I found the portrayals of the main men in Aretha’s life much more compelling, perhaps because their public personas are much less set in stone and thus the actors don’t have to feel beholden to icons. I’m talking Forest Whitaker as her iron-willed minister father C.L., Marlon Wayans as her controlling and abusive manager-slash-husband Ted White, and Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler, the producer who’s actually committed to letting Aretha be Aretha. Respect gives us a full picture of all the big, often controlling personalities in Aretha’s life, and so it works in painting that picture and in that way it fulfills the promise of its title. If you’re in the mood for that sort of contextualization, you might be satisfied, but don’t expect the house to be brought down the way that Aretha so often did.

Respect is Recommended If You Like: Behind the Music, Deferential covers

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Chains of Fools

‘Burden’ Paints a Possible Path Out of Hatred

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CREDIT: 101 Studios

Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Crystal R. Fox, Dexter Darden, Tess Harper, Usher

Director: Andrew Heckler

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for The Prosaic Evil of Hate Groups

Release Date: February 28, 2020 (Limited)

Reformed Ku Klux Klansman Michael Burden has the sort of name that only the hackiest of screenwriters would christen one of their fictional characters. But as an actual person, his moniker is a gift to someone crafting a based-on-a-true-story feature. For every living person in this world, a great deal of existence is about carrying burdens, and for Michael Burden, that truth is especially heavy. An orphan who was raised by Klan members from a young age, all he’s ever known is hatred. When he is finally able to pull himself away from that, he keeps buckling under the weight he has to bear: from the manipulation and emotional abuse he has endured and must still contend with, to the guilt from all the wrong he’s done and must atone for, to the general knot of anger at the pit of his soul.

Burden the film asks the question: is it worth the effort to rehabilitate someone who has left an ideology of hate? The example of Michael Burden (portrayed here by Garrett Hedlund) shows that it is possible, but where does that responsibility fall? In this case, the burden of Burden is transferred particularly hard onto his girlfriend Judy (Andrea Riseborough) and her young son, who somehow see a decent soul begging to break free, as well as the black Baptist Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), who interprets Burden’s predicament as a sign from God but risks alienating his wife and son with his offers of fellowship to a man they fundamentally do no trust. Taking on this burden leads to lives nearly getting ripped apart because of it.

Writer-director Andrew Heckler has presented us with a striking portrait of faith. Judy and Rev. Kennedy face intimidation and rationalization, but they carry through believing that their efforts are worthwhile. That faith is not simple nor is it easy. On the contrary, it is often frighteningly challenging. But something must be done to stem the intractability of discord. Burden zips through a few beats on its way to get to a fulfilling ending, but it is ultimately a valuable testament to the power of redemption and forgiveness.

Burden is Recommended If You Like: Places in the Heart, Dead Man Walking, the power of faith

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Deers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Black Panther’ Absolutely Resides Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Just a Hitherto Barely Explored Corner

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Ryan Coogler

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Fighting with a Variety of Weapons, Some of It Fairly Brutal and Bloody

Release Date: February 16, 2018

Black Panther culminates with the lesson, “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” This appeal would seem to apply most directly to the United States at this particular cultural moment, but instead it is an exhortation to the fictional African nation of Wakanda now that its new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has ascended. Wakanda is filled with vast riches and incredibly advanced technology thanks to the stockpile of the alien metal vibranium long ago delivered by a meteorite crash. But it is also supposedly one of the poorest nations on the planet, likely due to a generations-long isolationist policy. Much of Black Panther feels like buildup to this point of opening up to the rest of the world, and in that way it is a prelude to the sequels that are sure to come. But what it reveals over the course of that prelude is thrilling.

Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie, but with a majority-black cast, black director, and African setting, it is unabashedly black in so many ways that are unprecedented for a blockbuster of this magnitude. It is unsurprising then that its initial villain is reminiscent of blaxploitation heroes fighting against The Man. Ulysses Klaue (an agreeably gonzo Andy Serkis) is a white South African arms dealer who is looking to get his hands on vibranium and make a pretty penny in the black market.  But after Klaue is dispatched, the conflict ultimately comes down to that between T’Challa and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who was born in America but has Wakandan roots and just as legitimate a claim to the throne as T’Challa. While Killmonger’s methods are overly destructive, his complaints, both personal and regarding how Wakanda does its public business, are legitimate. That Black Panther focuses on an intranational conflict should not be viewed as evidence of African and black cultures refusing to engage with the rest of the world, but rather an illustration that they already have plenty to keep themselves occupied.

While filled with several action set pieces and a fast-moving plot, Black Panther is most successful in its design and production elements. This is the sort of movie that brings a fully realized vision of a fictional world to life. The costumes are based on traditional African garb, but they are their own uniquely lavish style. Diverse tattoos and piercings add to the mix, including a few elements (such as one very stretched-out lower lip) that could be presented comically but are instead signs of dignity.

Culturally, this is a people that honors its elders, going so far as to have another dimension of sorts that exists at the nexus of technology and magic. Dubbed “the Ancestral Plane,” its purpose is for new kings to visit their deceased forebears for the sake of imparting necessary wisdom. Wakanda also treats its women in high regard, as they no big deal serve essential roles in government, science, and diplomacy. It may be true that the throne may not appear to be an option for woman (at least in this outing), but the monarchy is not as unilateral a position as it could possibly be. Considering all that progressiveness, it is disheartening that so much of Wakanda honor is bound up in a code of fighting and a culture of combat. That is not a complaint against the movie; in fact, what we have here is an appreciably complicated look at the difficulty to be a paragon of a nation.

The Black Panther is not just T’Challa, but rather a mantle that he holds currently. Accordingly, Black Panther the film is very much an ensemble piece, with attitude- and passion-driven performances from all the Wakandan tribes. The particular breakthrough is Letitia Wright (probably best known for the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s spitfire younger sister Shuri, who manages to be both the comic relief and the Q to his James Bond.

Black Panther fits squarely within the overarching narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though it can stand firmly on its own. Furthermore, it is nice to see it sidestep the easy template of the typical origin story that most solo superhero cinematic debuts tend towards. It has the standard two post-credits scenes, and weirdly enough they fit in the the MCU’s next chapter more squarely than other recent post-credits stingers. The last one is also more satisfying than those recent examples, perhaps because Black Panther takes care of its own, and we are ready when it stretches out.

Black Panther is Recommended If You Like: Shaft, Captain America: Civil War, Fruitvale Station

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Headwraps

This Is a Movie Review: Arrival

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arrival_movie

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: Rated PG-13 for Visceral Disorientation

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Arrival takes the novel approach of making translation the focus of an alien invasion movie. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist hired to attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials to understand the purpose of their visit to Earth. This may sound like a formula profoundly devoid of excitement, but if you believe that, then you are vastly underestimating humanity’s potential for paranoia, as well as director Denis Villeneuve’s (PrisonersSicario) proven knack for drawing out intrigue by just lingering on the vastness of his settings. Also, if you can get over the lack of typical sci-fi action, Dr. Banks’ sessions with the two main “heptapod” aliens (dubbed “Abbot and Costello”) are a lot of fun, in a Sesame Street-edutainment sort of way.

Ultimately, Arrival justifies its existence by demonstrating that the question of how to talk to the aliens should pretty much always be one of the most pressing concerns in this genre. More fantastically inclined entries may get away with universal translation devices, but the road to such an invention, as presented here, is a thrilling triumph of human ingenuity and transcendent gumption.

Cracking the code of whether or not the aliens are friend, foe, or something else entirely requires an entirely new way of thinking. Understanding context is always important when it comes to communication, but this is a film about when context does not exist, which is existentially terrifying. In the fight to create context, what emerges is a holistic approach that is simultaneously not at all about cracking any code and entirely about cracking a code that both exists and does not exist. To truly understand Arrival, you must accept that it can never be understood. This is filmmaking at the crossroads of theoretical physics, hope, and the sublime.

Arrival is Recommended If You LikePrimerClose Encounters of the Third Kind, the quieter moments of 2001

Grade: 4.5 Out of 5 Droopy Forest Whitaker Eyelids