Early in Respect, family friend and noted gospel singer and minister Reverend James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess) tells a young Aretha Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner) that she must “honor the gifts that God has given [her].” This small interaction sets the tone for the entire movie, as Respect goes on to remind us that God has uniquely gifted all of his children and that our gifts are to be used first for his glory.
From a young age, everyone recognizes Aretha’s God-given talent. But people—often those closest to her—manipulate, misuse, and abuse her for their own purposes. Even the adult Aretha (played wonderfully by Jennifer Hudson, who was personally chosen by the Queen of Soul herself to star in her biopic) is apt to misuse her gifts as a tool to exert power or diminish her family and friends.
Respect gives the broad outline of Aretha Franklin’s life, from her childhood to her resplendent recording of her 1972 Amazing Grace album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church (a concert documentary of the recording is available on Hulu). As a young child, Aretha’s sublime singing gifts were so evident that her father allowed her to entertain his famous guests at his house parties on Friday nights and lead the choir at his megachurch on Sunday mornings. In the movie, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) is a looming presence in Aretha’s life. He supports his daughter’s career aspirations, but seeks to shape her into a “black Judy Garland.” He exerts tight control over every aspect of her life, including her golden voice. In a bit of foreshadowing, Aretha’s mother (Audra McDonald) warns her to remember her gift is from God and her father does not own it.
Her father is not the only one who attempts to control Aretha’s gift of song. Her first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans) latches on to Aretha in an attempt to bolster his fledgling music management and production career. Aretha, desperate to escape her father, endures White’s abuse until it is no longer possible to hide behind the gorgeous gowns and sold-out shows. Both her father and her first husband seek to use Aretha’s God-given gifts for their own purposes.
It can be tempting for church leaders to exploit and abuse the most gifted singers or Sunday school teachers, placing those deemed less gifted to the side so the pews are filled on Sundays. We platform and follow the most charismatic, caring less about their character and how they might be shaping our own. We lose track of how we are being formed as Christ followers, because we have been enamored by the gifts themselves instead of the giver of those good and perfect gifts.
In Respect, Aretha is depicted as having little agency in her early career. In one scene, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) scolds her for using her gifts to mimic the great singers whom she admires instead of finding her own distinctive style. Aretha admits she is still trying to figure out who she is as a singer. We, too, waste a lot of time wishing for the gifts of others, wanting to be the next CeCe Winans, Beth Moore, or Charles Spurgeon—rather than the person God has called us to uniquely be. Both wanting gifts that are not ours and attempting to craft our gifts into the image of others limits our kingdom effectiveness.
We can become enamored by the gifts themselves, instead of the giver of those good and perfect gifts.
Of course, our gifts alone are not enough to preserve our lives and give us purpose. At the height of her career, Respect depicts Aretha as struggling with mental illness and alcoholism. She needed a therapist and rehab, but she also needed the Lord. Her mother, who died years earlier when Aretha was just a child, comes to her in a vision, singing “Amazing Grace,” reminding her she “needs the church and the Holy Spirit.” This vision, according to the movie, serves as the impetus for her best-selling Amazing Grace album. She tells incredulous record executive Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) that “this album is for God . . . because the church and the Spirit have always gotten [her] through.” We are not meant to use our gifts independently of the one who created us; to attempt to do so often leaves us empty and unfulfilled. As Aretha quips, “You cannot jive God.”
Aretha never left the church or the faith of her youth. She found strength and comfort in gospel songs like “Amazing Grace,” passed from generation to generation of saints who had experienced God’s favor in the face of Jim Crow and white supremacy. And yet, having experienced loss and despair after life’s disappointments and abuse, she tried to run from God to control her gifts. But even as she ran, God brought her back—just as he had Jonah, Peter, David, and Naomi. We have pages and pages of testimonies in scripture of those who ran, hid, lied, and misused their gifts, but God is faithful to forgive our unrighteousness.
1 Corinthians 12:7 says that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Our gifts—whether teaching, encouragement, knowledge, faith, prophecy, or mercy—have all been given for the good of the body of Christ and the glory of God. It is fitting that Respect ends in the sanctuary of New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, with Aretha belting out “Amazing Grace.” It is by God’s grace that we are saved and found, it is his grace that preserves us through the many “toils and snares” of life, both those created by others and the ones we set ourselves. God’s grace indeed leads us home.
We should always remember that it is by God’s grace we have each been gifted “for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” Respect teaches us that our gifts, our lives, are not our own. It is only by utilizing our gifts as God intended that we find true peace and a sense of home.