(The following post contains SPOILERS for the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect”)
The new Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” shows the Queen of Soul grappling with fame, fortune, finding the right note at the start of her career and everything that followed. But it offers little clarity around one of the most poignant parts of her young life – Franklin’s becoming pregnant as a young girl, whether willingly or otherwise.
In the opening of the film directed by Liesl Tommy, we meet a 10-year-old Aretha (played by 12-year-old Skye Dakota Turner) whose preacher father (Forest Whitaker) brings her downstairs to a party full of famous people and asks her to sing for everybody.
In a later party scene, with the clearly pre-pubescent Aretha preparing to go to sleep in her bedroom, an unnamed man enters, closes the door and says that he’ll be her “boyfriend.” Later, we see the little girl in silhouette, now with a round belly of pregnancy.
The scene is fairly elusive in what it really suggests about the specifics of Franklin’s early-in-life pregnancy — but clearly hints at a much darker chapter of her life than many fans knew. So what really happened?
In real life, Franklin gave birth to four boys: Clarence Franklin, Edward Franklin, Teddy Richards and Kecalf Cunningham. Clarence, her firstborn who was named after the singer’s preacher father, was born just two months before her 13th birthday, and she had Edward, her second child, two years later at age 14.
Franklin herself never revealed the identity of the father of either of the boys, but a 2014 biography by David Ritz called “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin” claimed that the father of her oldest son Clarence was Donald Burke, a boy she knew from school. But there is no suggestion in the biography that the pregnancy resulted from a nonconsensual encounter, or as the movie suggests and as critics have observed, that she was the victim of statutory rape.
However even that detail was called into question in 2019 after Franklin’s death, when three handwritten wills were discovered in her home, including one in a notebook wedged between couch cushions. When Franklin died in 2018, her family believed that she had no will, and her sons have argued in court over the authenticity of those documents.
But one of the wills states that Clarence’s father was Edward Jordan Sr., with whom she also had her second son, Edward, in 1957. Little is known about Edward Jordan Sr., and Franklin rarely discussed her first two pregnancies. Ritz’s biography does identify Jordan Sr. as a “player” whom Franklin once knew.
The wills (which you can read here, here and here) also clearly spell out that Jordan Sr. should “never receive or handle any money or property belonging to Clarence” because “he has never made any contribution to [Clarence’s] welfare, future or past,” twice underlining the word “never” for emphasis. And though Franklin’s estate would have originally been divided equally among her four sons, discussions about those documents’ validity has complicated the battle over her estate and what Franklin’s hopes were for her children.
Ritz’s biography also goes into other details about Franklin’s parents’ promiscuous lifestyle in her youth, including suggestions of orgies and what Ray Charles described as a “sex circus” among the gospel artists while on tours, material that the movie “Respect” carefully avoids.
The filmmakers were not immediately made available for comments to TheWrap on how they addressed Franklin’s early pregnancies.
Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson stars in “Respect” as the legendary singer as a grown-up, with Audra McDonald as her mother, Barbara Franklin. Marlon Wayans plays her first husband Ted White, Marc Maron is music producer Jerry Wexler, Tituss Burgess plays gospel music icon James Cleveland, Saycon Sengbloh as sister Erma Franklin, Hailey Kilgore as Carolyn Franklin, Heather Headley as gospel singer Clara Ward and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington.
Broadway veteran Tommy makes her feature directorial debut on the film, based on a screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson from a story by Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) and Wilson.
“Respect” opens in theaters on Friday.