Let the record show 2021 as the year Tracey Scott Wilson commanded respect in Hollywood…courtesy of Respect. The new Aretha Franklin biopic opens in theatres August 13.
The artsy, intellectual writer has had a winding road to Hollywood. It all began with a fluke playwrighting class at Temple University. Wilson had intended to study fiction writing, but found her skills more attuned to drama. That led to playwrighting opportunities with the prestigious New York Theatre Workshop, where Wilson would also meet her longtime collaborator (and future Respect director) Liesl Tommy. Wilsons stage work, including the widely acclaimed play The Good Negro would also lead to television opportunities. Wilson would go on to contribute scripts to the series The Americans and Fosse/Verdon, picking up two Emmy Nominations in the process.
Respect marks Wilson’s debut as a feature film screenwriter. The film traces the life of music legend Aretha Franklin from her girlhood in Detroit to her rise as a lauded and outspoken recording artist. Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson steps into the leading role, with a supporting cast that includes fellow Oscar alum Forest Whitaker, Marlon Waynes, Mary J. Blige, Titus Burgess and Audra McDonald.
With Respect waiting in the wings, we caught up with Wilson to talk about her life as a queer writer, her approach to Respect and the enduring legend of Ms. Franklin herself. Respect hits cinemas August 13.
At exactly what point did you get involved with development?
I got involved in May . Liesl [Tommy] is one of my closest friends, and she got the directing job. She brought me on board. And we were shooting in October, so it was an incredibly fast schedule. It only worked because we know each other so well. We have such a shorthand. It was crazy.
Five months from “you go the job” to shooting? That’s insane.
It is. And because it was my first movie, I didn’t know how crazy it was. Like I said, I couldn’t have done it with anybody else.
How intimidating is it to take on the life of a legend? How do you stay focused?
Well, this is where the speed of the whole thing served as an advantage. Liesl showed me the schedule and said this is when production needs this, this is when production needs that. So I didn’t have any time to be really indulgent, which I usually enjoy being. It just had to get done. A draft had to be written so they could budget and hire people. So it was just, as you know, writing and rewriting.
When Liesl pitched the story, she wanted it to start when Aretha was ten and end on Amazing Grace. And the arc of it would be a woman with the greatest voice in the world finding her own voice. So within those parameters, we just created the stories and found the stories that would fit. It helped to narrow down the period of the research.
One thing that really struck me about your approach to the material is that you tell a story about a woman literally finding her voice in many ways. From a dramatic standpoint, that makes the early scenes tricky as Aretha is a more passive, withdrawn character. How do you go about writing a scene where subtext needs to really carry the narrative and character arc?
Well, this was the huge learning curve. It becomes about the directing, and about the point of view. It became about shooting the scene from Aretha’s point of view, whether she’s talking or not. When there’s something going on, we see it through her eyes. The audience is naturally within that perspective. This is why the childhood stuff is important: we set up the relationships she had as a child, the trauma she had as a child, so the audience knows she’s carrying that with her. That’s part of the reason for her silence.
And that’s where Liesl’s direction comes into play.
I’m interested too that you mention Liesl wanted to end on Amazing Grace. Aretha obviously had a long, varied, prestigious career after that. Why did you choose to end there?
I think it’s because it tracks her spiritual journey. In that moment, the Amazing Grace album is her coming back to the church on her own terms. Not her father’s religion, Ted’s, not any man. She’s coming back and finding her own healing. That, I think, is what is powerful and makes it universal.
It’s a powerful sequence. And it helps that you have Jennifer Hudson there. Jennifer Hudson was hand-picked by Aretha to star in the film. When you know you’re writing for specific actors, does that affect how you approach a scene?
That’s where the TV part of my writing came in handy. When I was on The Americans and we would have table reads, I remember clearly Matthew and Keri’s voices were in my head. So I was crafting it around their voices I had gotten to know.
And Jennifer, she had a speech coach and a movement coach but she was still bringing her own stuff to it. I knew to look out for that. So when we started shooting, I was paying attention to how she was speaking or walking so that when rewrites came, I would be conscious of that.
Obviously, there are many scenes of domestic strife in the film, and of alcohol abuse. When you have to write scenes of cruelty like that—particularly on Aretha’s part—how do you keep us from hating her?
Well I think at that point in the movie, the audience has been with her and seen her pain. I remember reading Steven Spielberg talk once about how he made an audience cry. In particular, it was in The Color Purple—Celie doesn’t cry until the end when she’s filled with joy. It gives the audience permission to do that.
I think we did the same. We’ve been on the journey with Aretha for three acts and we know she has this pain she’s not letting out. We’re just waiting for her to have some release. So when we see that, we’re with her. We know what’s driving her, even if her family does not.
It helps too that you have Audra McDonald and Jennifer Hudson there.
That helps a lot, doesn’t it?
I can’t even imagine. It’s so moving. You guys got to me in that scene. Now, I want to ask—I believe we are both members of the queer community.
Happy to have you on the team. We should also mention that Aretha’s career was shaped by a number of gay men, in particular James Cleveland, played by Titus Burgess in the movie. Why does Aretha and her music speak to an LGBTQ audience? Is it just her brauvura? Or is it something deeper?
I think—and I hope the movie makes clear—Aretha was born with a level of genius.
At age five, she could play anything she heard, and she was surrounded by musical royalty—God knows what she absorbed from them. But what struck me was that her sister and brother grew up in that same environment. Somehow, she rose above to become this extraordinary talent. I think it’s because, from a young age, she used music to heal her pain. As she grew as an artist, she learned to craft her voice to express whatever she was going through. Her knowledge of music, the way she knew how to move an audience, “Respect” could be an anthem across ages, across race, across continents. You listen to that, and she’s speaking to whatever pain you’re going through.
There is not a person on this planet who doesn’t want, at some point in life, respect, or who doesn’t experience heartbreak. Her particular voice, her particular gift, her ability to use all she learned in the church to translate that made her the Queen of Soul for all time.
I love that. You already mentioned Liesl, your director. You have a longtime relationship with Liesl, your director whom you’ve known since 1998. Tell me about that…how do you challenge one another?
We’ve worked very closely together on a number of projects, in particular, my passion play The Good Negro. She directed it, and that was like four years of work. We just learned—I don’t know, it evolved into a relationship of mutual trust and respect. I know when she gives me a note, it comes from the place of wanting it to be the best it can be. It doesn’t come from ego. I know her style, she knows me style. We can always be honest with each other because we have a sound friendship. And when there’s tension, we know we can work it out.
I think what she always tries—what we want is to bring out the best in each other. And that’s really huge. It’s not something you always have with someone you haven’t worked with before. It’s really valuable.
I’d say so. Those creative partnerships are special, so hold on to it.
I’m gonna try.
So because this is your first movie, and because it is a very high-profile project about an icon, what do you learn about your abilities in just going through the process?
I think I learned I’m stronger than I thought I was. I learned how to quiet the sad voice in my head that says “You can’t do it, you’re a fraud. A failure.” I learned to quiet that, which is really powerful. I also reconnected with my spiritual side. I’m a preacher’s kid too, and lots of times in this process I was just forced to go to my knees because I didn’t have any strength left. So, in the same way Aretha did, I reconnected with that part of myself I’d let go of for various reasons. That was really powerful in getting to the end.
What kind of solace and wisdom do you find in your spirituality? What strength does it give you?
Well, my father always used to say it wasn’t important what god you served, so much as you served something bigger than yourself. I realized that’s true. If you don’t believe in something bigger than yourself, there really is emptiness, a void there. I think that’s the struggle that so many people go through. And that’s what I realized. Call it whatever you want: there is something out there bigger than all of us. However you manifest that—through service, praying, chanting, whatever—I think that humanity has a need to reach out for that. It’s very humbling. And it’s healing too.
Respect opens in cinemas August 13.