Tracey Scott Wilson wrote the screenplay for the new movie Respect, based on the life of Aretha Franklin. On TV, she served as a co-executive producer on Fosse/Verdon at FX and Apple TV+’s The Morning Show. Before that, she was a co-executive producer on FX’s award-winning series The Americans, where she wrote for four seasons and received two WGAE awards, two Peabody awards and a Golden Globe. Tracey is also a renowned playwright; her plays include Buzzer, The Good Negro and The Story and she is the winner of the 2001 Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award, the 2003 AT&T Onstage Award, the 2004 Whiting Award, the 2004 Kesselring Prize, the 2007 Weissberger Playwriting Award and the 2007 Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship. In 2009, she was the writer-in-residence at the O’Neil National Playwriting Conference. She has taught and guest-lectured at Brown University, Yale University, Rutgers University and NYU. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature from Temple University.
In May 2019, my good friend Liesl Tommy and I had a brief, but important, text exchange:
Liesl: Do you want to write the screenplay for the Aretha Franklin biopic?
Me: Are you kidding?
Saying yes to this project meant many things: in terms of my career, it was obviously a huge opportunity. I had been writing for TV for close to 10 years, but had never written a film before. Personally, it was a tremendous honor and privilege to write about a woman whose music was the soundtrack of my life. My grandmother, who lived with my family growing up, played the Amazing Grace album constantly, while my siblings and I played all of Aretha’s secular music. Taking this project on – while daunting and terrifying – was the greatest challenge of my artistic career. I had no idea, however, that it would also send me on a spiritual journey that would ultimately reconnect me to the faith and church I long thought I had left behind.
Aretha and I are both PKs (Preacher’s Kids). C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, had what we would now call a “megachurch” in Detroit. Thousands of people flocked to his New Bethel Baptist Church to hear him preach; indeed, albums of his sermons made the Billboard charts. My father was in no way as influential or important. He didn’t have a church and didn’t preach full time, yet I knew what it felt like to be trapped under a microscope because your behavior is seen as a direct reflection of your parents’ relationship with the heavenly Father.
Every teenager rebels against their parents at some point. It’s a well-worn rite of passage, a tired cliché. But a PK’s rebellion is complicated. For them, rejecting your parents is like rejecting God: if your parent is God’s emissary, and you are rejecting your parent’s ways and beliefs, you effectively are saying God is wrong. That is certainly what it felt like to me. Even when the childish, reflexive part of my rebellion subsided and I realized that my parents were just human beings doing the best they could in God’s name, I didn’t reinvest in God. I left him behind.
What I didn’t leave were the rituals, the songs, the sounds, the feelings, firmly rooted in me. They lingered in me like ghosts and they came roaring back to life as Respect gradually started to take shape on the page. I started to sing the gospel songs I’d learned as a child around the house. I started reading the bible again for some quotes, but also for inspiration. Much to my own surprise, I even found myself attending church. I did everything but pray. That felt like a line I couldn’t cross; a line too far. Reconnecting to church culture felt natural and good; believing in God again — not so much. I didn’t want to embrace my faith after all I’d gone through to let it go. It was a painful and lonely process that included parting ways with close friends and family who could not embrace my doubt.
So, it came as quite a surprise when I found myself on my knees during a particularly dark night of the soul. I was hired to write the screenplay for Respect in May 2019. We began shooting in October. The pressure was relentless. I was writing everyday while we were shooting. I wasn’t sleeping and all my healthy habits had long ago entered hibernation. I was struggling with a scene that was shooting the next day and Liesl, the producer and the actors were all waiting for it. I had nowhere to turn, the well was dry, and so I got on my knees. First, I asked the ancestors for guidance, then I asked God to give me the strength to complete my work because I couldn’t see a way to do it on my own.
Although the scenes remained challenging to write and the pressure on set never subsided, I did feel a burden lift. I recalled my father telling me that what I believed didn’t matter. What mattered was believing in something bigger than myself. I don’t know if getting on my knees was about God, or about stepping outside of my ego and pride and admitting I was not the
center of anything. That this entire experience was brand new and I was terrified. That I was feeling the weight of the responsibility of the story I was tasked with telling and, by extension, the story of all the Black people for whom Aretha’s voice was not just amazing, but a saving grace.
Serving something bigger was a calling Aretha embraced her entire life. Most people know Aretha as a fierce diva, which she was, but she was also fiercely political and loved Black people. She fought quietly and relentlessly for our rights while also dealing with intensely painful personal struggles. Her faith gave her the strength to do so and re-embracing that same faith gave me the strength to honor Aretha and tell her story.
Featured image shows Tracey Scott Wilson during the making of Respect.