All Research

Respect: History vs. Hollywood


Jennifer Hudson
Born: September 12, 1981
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Aretha Franklin
Born: March 25, 1942
Birthplace: Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Death: August 16, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA (pancreatic cancer)

Forest Whitaker
Born: July 15, 1961
Longview, Texas, USA

C. L. Franklin
Born: January 22, 1915
Birthplace: Sunflower County, Mississippi, USA
Death: July 27, 1984, Detroit, Michigan, USA (complications from gunshot wounds)
Bio: Aretha's Father

Audra McDonald
Born: July 3, 1970
Berlin, Germany

Barbara Franklin
Born: June 29, 1917
Birthplace: Shelby, Mississippi, USA
Death: March 7, 1952, Buffalo, New York, USA (heart attack)
Bio: Aretha's Mother

Marlon Wayans
Born: July 23, 1972
New York City, New York, USA

Ted White
Born: March 25, 1931
Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan, USA
Bio: Aretha's First Husband / Manager

Saycon Sengbloh
Born: October 23, 1977
Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Erma Franklin
Born: March 13, 1938
Birthplace: Shelby, Mississippi, USA
Death: September 7, 2002, Detroit, Michigan, USA (lung cancer)
Bio: Aretha's Older Sister

Hailey Kilgore
Born: February 16, 1999
Humble, Texas, USA

Carolyn Franklin
Born: May 13, 1944
Birthplace: Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Death: April 25, 1988, Bloomfield, Michigan, USA (breast cancer)
Bio: Aretha's Younger Sister

LeRoy McClain
Born: August 20, 1994
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, England, UK

Cecil Franklin
Born: March 31, 1940
Birthplace: Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Death: December 26, 1989, Detroit, Michigan, USA (heart attack)
Bio: Aretha's Older Brother

Tituss Burgess
Born: February 21, 1979
Athens, Georgia, USA

Reverend James Cleveland
Born: December 5, 1931
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Death: February 9, 1991, Culver City, California, USA (congestive heart failure)
Bio: Church Music Director

Mary J. Blige
Born: January 11, 1971
Yonkers, New York, USA

Dinah Washington
Born: August 29, 1924
Birthplace: Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA
Death: December 14, 1963, Detroit, Michigan, USA (lethal prescription drug combination)
Bio: Jazz Singer

Heather Headley
Born: October 5, 1974
Barataria, Trinidad, West Indies

Clara Ward
Born: April 21, 1924
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Death: January 16, 1973, Los Angeles, California, USA (stroke)
Bio: Gospel Singer / C. L. Ward's Girlfriend

Marc Maron
Born: September 27, 1963
New Jersey, USA

Jerry Wexler
Born: January 10, 1917
Birthplace: New York City, New York, USA
Death: August 15, 2008, Sarasota, Florida, USA (congestive heart failure)
Bio: Music Producer

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Did Aretha Franklin have a well-to-do upbringing?

For the most part, yes. The Respect true story reveals that unlike many other musicians of her time, Aretha Franklin did not have a rags-to-riches story. While she did endure a lot in her formative years, poverty was not a substantial part of her childhood. Though Aretha was born in Memphis Tennessee, the family had relocated when Aretha was five and her father eventually became pastor of Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha Franklin's father, preacher C. L. Franklin (played by Forest Whitaker), was a very well-known Baptist minister and celebrity preacher. He preached around the country and commanded as much as $4,000 for an appearance, a hefty fee for the period (TIME).

Fairly well-off in her childhood, Aretha Franklin did not have the rags-to-riches upbringing of some of her contemporaries.

How much of Aretha Franklin's life is focused on in the Respect movie?

The movie begins with Franklin's childhood in the late 1940s. We see her embracing success as a gospel singer in her father's New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. At the age of 18, she decides to start focusing on a career singing secular music. The movie chronicles the Queen of Soul's rise to stardom and concludes in 1972, around the time she recorded her biggest-selling album, Amazing Grace.

Was Aretha Franklin extremely shy as a child?

Yes, and the Respect movie true story confirms that Aretha's shyness stayed with her into adulthood, except when she was on the stage. Those who met her in person often described her as soft-spoken and reserved. Despite her quietness, she still had a formidable presence.

Does the movie leave out some of the unsavory details about Aretha's father, C. L. Franklin?

Yes. While the movie depicts Aretha Franklin's father, Pastor C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), as being a serial womanizer, he was far worse in real life. Back when the family was still living in Memphis and C. L. was the minister of a Baptist church there, he was known for preying on his female pre-teen congregants. He committed statutory rape (child sexual abuse) and impregnated at least one of them, a 12-year-old girl named Mildred Jennings. She was subsequently shunned for her own victimization, separated from her newborn, and kicked out of her home and the church community. Church members who suspected C. L. Franklin might be a predator monitored their young daughters while at church events. However, it wasn't long before C. L. moved his family to a church in Buffalo, New York, and then to Detroit where he took over the pastorship of New Bethel Baptist Church.

Aretha's father's disturbing behavior is highlighted in the 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz. In the biography, Ritz describes C. L. Franklin's Detroit church as an infamous "orgy church." He further said of the establishment, "High on the Holy Ghost, dancing in the aisles of New Bethel, the saints celebrated the love of Christ. High on wine and weed, the party people celebrated the love of the flesh." Ray Charles once referred to C. L.'s church as a "sex circus." Ritz says that as a result of growing up in such an unsettlingly promiscuous environment, Aretha's sexual awakening happened much earlier than normal.

The movie leaves out some of the unsavory history and details of Aretha's father, C. L. Franklin, portrayed by Forest Whitaker.

Did Aretha Franklin's mother, Barbara, leave Aretha's father because of his infidelities?

Yes. The true story behind the Respect movie confirms that Aretha Franklin's parents, Barbara and C. L. Franklin, separated in 1948, mainly due to C. L.'s perpetual infidelities, in addition to C. L. fathering a daughter to a 12-year-old girl. Barbara moved back to Buffalo, New York where C. L. had pastored Friendship Baptist Church for two years after the family left Memphis. It was also where Barbara's mother lived. Despite previous reports, Barbara Franklin did not desert her children. Aretha corrected this bit of misinformation about her mother. In author Nick Salvatore's biography of C. L. Franklin, he emphasizes that Barbara visited her children in Detroit and they made trips during summer vacations to stay with her in Buffalo.

Not long after Barbara left, C. L. entered into a decades-long romantic relationship with gospel singer Clara Ward. Their time together, which lasted until Ward's death in 1973, was plagued by abuse, so much so that gospel legend James Cleveland referred to them as the "church's version of Ike and Tina." -African American Intellectual History Society

Did Aretha Franklin's mother die of a heart attack when Aretha was 9 years old?

Yes. Aretha Franklin's mother, Barbara, passed away from a heart attack on March 7, 1952 at age 34. It was 18 days before Aretha's tenth birthday. Her mother had been a gifted singer in her own right. Jennifer Hudson said that she could understand the pain and grief that came with such a loss, having lost her own mother, brother, and young nephew in a 2008 shooting.

Did Aretha Franklin really grow up surrounded by famous people like Martin Luther King Jr.?

Yes. A Respect fact-check confirms that Aretha Franklin's father, C. L. Franklin, was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and rubbed elbows with many other black icons of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Sam Cooke. "[Martin Luther King Jr.] and my dad were great friends," Aretha said in an interview. "[Martin Luther King Jr.] very definitely had an appreciation for gospel music. One of his favorite songs was 'Precious Lord,' and he would always ask me to sing that for him." Dick Gregory told American Masters in 1988 that if Martin Luther King Jr. ever needed money, he could always call Aretha's father. Aretha grew up in a house filled with both music and politics. Her own activism is highlighted in the Respect movie.

It's true that Aretha Franklin was friends with Martin Luther King Jr.

Did Aretha's father pull her out of school to go on tour when she was 11 years old?

Yes. Not long after her mother died, Aretha's father, preacher C. L. Franklin, pulled her out of school to go on tour. Actor Forest Whitaker, who portrays C. L. in the movie, says that C. L. believed his daughter was blessed with a "divine" gift and became very protective of that gift, to the point that he smothered his daughter. "That's the hard part of being a family business, too, I think," said Jennifer Hudson. "You're no longer the daughter, you're the talent. And then you no longer have a father, you have a manager — or a husband, now that's your manager." Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn, spent years as her backup singers.

Did Aretha Franklin give birth to two children before she was 16?

Yes. Aretha first became pregnant at the age of 12, giving birth to her son Clarence (named after Aretha's father) in 1955. Her second child, Edward, was born in 1957 when Aretha was 14. Given her father's reputation for preying on pre-teen girls, it was rumored that he might be the father of Clarence. However, in a handwritten will discovered in 2019, Aretha revealed that both children were born to the same father, Edward Jordan. Aretha's brother referred to Jordan as a "player."

For a long time, little was known about her first two pregnancies because she did not like to discuss the subject during interviews. We do know that while Aretha was pursuing her career (and at the same time trying to be a kid and spend time with friends), her children were being raised by her grandmother, Rachel, and her sister, Erma. Aretha visited her children often.

The Respect true story reveals that in early 1964, she gave birth to her third son, Ted White Jr., at age 21 while she was married to Ted White Sr. (portrayed by Marlon Wayans in the Respect movie). Her fourth and youngest son, Kecalf Cunningham, was born in 1970 when Aretha was 28 and involved with her road manager, Ken Cunningham.

How did Aretha Franklin meet her first husband, Ted White?

Though Aretha Franklin and Ted White didn't marry until 1961 when she was 19, they had first encountered each other in 1954 at a party held at the Franklin home. Biographer David Ritz described White as being an infamous Detroit pimp. "Anyone who didn't see Ted White as a straight-up pimp had to be deaf, dumb, and blind," said Motown Records producer Harvey Fuqua. "It took someone that slick to get a great talent like Aretha in his stable."

Top: Jennifer Hudson and Ted White during their marriage in the 1960s. Bottom: Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Hudson portray the couple in the Respect movie.

When was Aretha Franklin crowned the "Queen of Soul"?

Aretha Franklin was declared the "Queen of Soul" around 1962 during a show at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Radio personality Pervis Spann made the announcement as he ceremonially placed a crown on Aretha's head. -Wendy Williams Aretha Franklin Interview

Was Aretha Franklin's first husband, Ted White, abusive?

Yes. The Respect movie true story confirms that Aretha Franklin's husband, Ted White, portrayed by Marlon Wayans in an unusual dramatic turn, was equally cold-hearted and abusive in real life. Aretha had gone from a smothering and controlling relationship with her father to a controlling and abusive relationship with White. It's true that Ted White helped Aretha land a record deal. However, biographer David Ritz revealed that during her marriage to White, she started drinking heavily to numb her unhappiness.

Aretha Franklin's husband Ted White (left) and actor Marlon Wayans (right) as White in the Respect movie.

Did Aretha Franklin have problems with alcohol?

Yes. As stated in the previous question, Aretha Franklin began drinking heavily while in her abusive and unhappy marriage to Ted White. Aretha's friend Ruth Bowen said that her alcohol issues became publicly visible in 1967 when she fell off the stage during a performance in Georgia and broke her arm. Aretha said it was because of the bright lights. She always denied the reports of alcoholism. 1967 was the same year that her most well-known song, "Respect," was released. Eventually, Aretha made the difficult decision to separate from Ted White after roughly seven years of marriage. She kicked him out and they divorced the following year. Jennifer Hudson says that Aretha was clearly trying to become the boss of her own life.

Aretha, pictured on the left in 1967, reportedly turned to alcohol to numb her unhappiness during her marriage to Ted White.

How many times was Aretha Franklin married?

Aretha Franklin was married twice, first tying the knot with Ted White at the age of 18 in 1961. Their tumultuous marriage was plagued by domestic abuse, as emphasized in the Respect movie. Franklin and White separated in 1968 and divorced in 1969. It was then that her brother Cecil became her manager, a position he held until his death from lung cancer in 1989. Aretha Franklin married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, in 1978. They separated in 1982 before divorcing in 1984. Aretha's friend Ruth Bowen said that she would always tell interviewers about her happy home life, but the reality was much different.

Are the actors singing in the movie?

Yes. While the answer might seem obvious for Jennifer Hudson's performance in the movie, production designer Ina Mayhew said that "anyone who has to sing in this movie can actually sing." This explains many of the casting choices, including six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as Aretha Franklin's mother, Barbara Franklin, and Grammy and Tony winner Heather Headley as gospel singer Clara Ward. The movie's performances were recorded live as the scenes unfolded.

To prepare for the role, Jennifer Hudson took six months of intensive piano lessons and studied Aretha's dialect and movement.

How did C. L. Franklin die?

Aretha Franklin's father, C. L. Franklin, was shot twice at point-blank range at his home not long after midnight on Sunday, June 10, 1979. The police believed that it was an attempted robbery. C. L. spent the next five years in a coma. He was given 24-hour nursing care at his home until mid-1984 when he was moved to a nursing home. He passed away not long after on July 27, 1984 at age 69.

Did Jennifer Hudson ever meet Aretha Franklin?

Yes. Jennifer Hudson sang Aretha Franklin's song "Share Your Love With Me" for her American Idol audition. After appearing on Idol and winning an Academy Award for the 2006 musical Dreamgirls, Hudson, then 25, received an invitation from the Queen of Soul to come visit her in New York.

"We met in New York," said Hudson, "and one of the first things she said to me was, 'You're gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?' Imagine Aretha Franklin looking you in the face and saying that." The two became close friends and continued to speak on a regular basis up until Aretha's death in 2018.

The real Aretha Franklin wanted Jennifer Hudson to portray her in the movie and was involved in the production up until her death in 2018. Photo: Jennifer Hudson Instagram

Did Aretha Franklin get to see the movie before her death?

While Aretha Franklin was involved in the development of the Respect movie and did handpick Jennifer Hudson to portray her, she died more than a year before filming began in Atlanta on September 2, 2019. Aretha's cousin and niece gave Hudson pointers on the set.

How did Aretha Franklin die?

The Queen of Soul succumbed to pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer on August 16, 2018. She was 76. She is thought to have been first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010. That is the year she underwent surgery for neuroendocrine tumors.

How does Jennifer Hudson feel about the National Geographic series Genius: Aretha starring Cynthia Erivo?

Aretha Franklin's family blasted the Nat Geo biopic, claiming that they weren't contacted for their input and approval. Jennifer Hudson echoed their sentiments with a more subtle response. "I know that Aretha was adamant that [her life] be a film. If it's not a film, it's nothing. I'm just honored that she picked me to play her. I mean, who can say that? And again, I would have never done it without her wishes."

Aretha Franklin Performances & Related Videos

Learn more about the true story behind the Respect movie by watching the Aretha Franklin performances and interview below. Also, watch Jennifer Hudson perform for Aretha at her tribute concert.