I’ll file this under "unconfirmed" for now; although the folks at Tracking Board, who are breaking this news in an exclusive, have been mostly correct in their past exclusive reports, so there’s a good chance that this will eventually turn out to be official. Also worth noting is that Jennifer Hudson has long been in the running for the role (according to Aretha Franklin anyway), so if she has indeed been cast, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
According to Tracking Board, Jennifer Hudson has been cast as Aretha Franklin in the songstress’ biopic. The website also adds that Universal Pictures executive and prolific producer Scott Bernstein is shepherding the project.
My last report on this long-in-limbo project was about a year ago, when Franklin herself said in an interview with Billboard magazine, that she and her production team were "very, very close" to getting the film finally into production, adding, "It’s just a matter of our coming to terms and agreeing about what we’re going to do…"
And regarding casting the project – specifically the actress who would play her, Franklin continued: "Right now it could be one of several people,,, There’s always the producers’ book, who the producer wants you to consider, and sometimes unknown names… Audra’s [McDonald] got a great voice to work with, but she’s very Broadway oriented, but that doesn’t mean she cannot perform in the arena of soul, so that’s why I’m interested in hearing how she would sing my things. The singing is certainly going to be a very, very integral and important part of it."
The Billboard piece also added that Franklin had met with Lifetime channel executives in New York, to discuss the biopic. She didn’t share what came of her meeting with Lifetime, other than to say what she said above (that they were "very, very close to signatures"). But I won’t at all be surprised if a deal is/was struck, given the network’s recent interest in biopics based on the lives of black public figures. For example, "Betty & Coretta," Gabby Douglas, Whitney Houston, and Aaliyah. There have also been several Lifetime movies telling stories centered on the lives of black characters, like the all-black remake of "Steel Magnolias," "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," "Abducted," and more.
Clearly the network was interested (and has likely found much success) in targeting African American audiences with its original movies.
An Aretha Franklin biopic would certainly fit – depending on how Franklin herself imagines the project’s look and feel. In meeting with Lifetime, she clearly hasn’t ruled out a telepic, as opposed to a film made specifically for the big screen. Although, at this point, after so many years of wanting to get it made, she just may be weary of the struggle, and is willing to settle for less than she may have initially wanted.
Time will tell…
Audra McDonald was aware that Franklin was interested in having her star in the film, stating, when asked about the possibility 2 years ago that, "it would be an honor to play her," unlike Halle Berry, who was Franklin’s first choice for the part, but who wasn’t interested.
Unless Audra was just being polite in her above response to Broadway.com, who asked her about it.
I should note that, in that same Billboard interview, Jennifer Hudson was mentioned as still being a candidate for the role.
It’s been a long journey for this project (I believe we’ve been tracking it for as long as this blog has been around – 6 years). Over that time, Franklin has certainly not been shy about talking up the potential film, name-dropping, sharing who she’d met with, who was interested, who she’d like to work with, etc.
In 2012, in an interview posted on Glamour magazine’s website, Franklin revealed that the movie would be directed by Taylor Hackford, who produced and directed "Ray." Whether he’s indeed attached hasn’t been confirmed by the filmmaker (that I’m aware of).
It was in that same interview that she first expressed interest in Audra, stating: "I went to see Audra in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and I was very impressed with her dramatic ability. She was terrific… And Jennifer [Hudson] had voice. Audra has voice. The question is whether or not Audra can cross over into soul. You know, she does Broadway magnificently. But can she get over into soul is the question."
In the 2012 Glamour magazine interview, she also shared: "We [she and Hackford] are fine-tuning the treatment now. The treatment has four acts. He has finished all four. We’re now reworking some of it where it needs work: ‘A little more drama, tell me something else, what else happened here? We need a little more of this, a little more of that.’"
She also said that an actor she and Hackford would both like to see play her father in the movie is Denzel Washington: "He [Taylor] mentioned Denzel first, and I was thinking of Billy Dee [Williams]. That’s who I was thinking of. And he mentioned Denzel, and I said ‘Hmm…’ And when I thought about Malcolm X, and what he did with that, I said, ‘Yes! He could do it. He could handle it. If he put a little more weight on and glasses, he could handle it.’ […] My dad, yeah. That’s the way it opens. It opens in the pulpit with my dad speaking on "The Eagle Stirs Her Nest." The equation is a mother and her children. That’s the way the movie is going to open."
"The Eagle Stirs Her Nest" was a 1961 sermon preached by her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin.
She also shared that Dorothy Norwood, Karen Clark and La Shun Pace (all award-winning gospel singers), had already been cast to play the Clara Ward singers in the movie (Clara Ward being the queen of gospel music, and among those that would influence Aretha’s music and vocal style, as well as a longtime lover of Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, with whom the Ward singers toured extensively).
And finally, when asked what her vision for the film is, Aretha said: "Accuracy. The facts. Let’s present the facts, and be as creative as possible with them."
I think we can all agree with her on that point, if nothing else.
In the past, we’ve joked about the uncertainty of this movie, wondering if it was indeed a real project. But, it looks like it very much is. I don’t think anyone’s asked Taylor Hackford about he’s involvement in the project; nothing that’s showed up on my Google alerts, anyway. Maybe one of you knows something different.
Franklin has always boasted about it, calling the project, "an epic tale with probably the most starring and supporting roles since ‘Roots’."
But if it’s produced for/by the Lifetime network, that might signal a goodbye to any epic-ness.