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MGM’s Respect, a film about the early life and career of Aretha Franklin, just hit theaters, with Jennifer Hudson starring as the Queen of Soul. But the Obamas won’t need to rush to the cineplex opening weekend — they’ve already seen it.
The Hollywood Reporter learned that producers arranged for a private screening for former President Barack Obama and wife Michelle, a week ahead of his well-publicized 60th birthday party in Martha’s Vineyard. The preview for the Obama family should come as no surprise considering their connections to both superstar vocalists.
The Obamas know Hudson well from Chicago, where she was born and raised, and where Windy City native Michelle Obama met Barack when he was interning at a law firm she worked for. Barack went on to serve in the Illinois Senate from 1997-2004 before moving on to the U.S. Senate and eventually the White House in 2008. After he was re-elected president in 2012, the couple invited Hudson to perform at the inaugural ball where she sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” as the President and First Lady had their first dance.
The Obamas bond with Franklin was a powerful one. At his 2009 history-making inauguration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Franklin moved the crowd with a stirring rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” In 2015, Franklin, draped in a fur coat, surprised the elite Kennedy Center crowd by taking center stage during a tribute to legend Carole King. She performed her classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and brought Obama, among many others, to tears.
She joined the Obamas for a variety of official events during their White House tenure including at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011, the 91st annual National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in D.C. in 2013, a portrait unveiling for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2015, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on April 30, 2016, and the International Jazz Day Concert on April 29, 2016, among other stops.
It was because of their bond with both women that producers made it a point to screen the film early for them, Jonathan Glickman tells THR. “It was very important for us to make sure that they saw it first and foremost,” notes Glickman, who produced alongside Scott Bernstein and Stacey Sher. “I know that he loved it. He actually called to FaceTime Jennifer right afterward to say how much he loved it.”
Screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson said she’s glad that she didn’t know the Obamas were seeing the film until after it happened “because I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep,” she said. “The only thing better than knowing they loved is that the Franklin family loved it, too. The rest is like the icing on the cake.”
“Overwhelming” is how director Liesl Tommy responded when asked how it felt to know that the Obamas and other notables like Smokey Robinson have seen her work. “The way I kept my sanity while making this film was that I focused on my job and on preserving and Aretha Franklin’s legacy,” she continued. “Now that it’s over, I lift my head up to find that all of my heroes are seeing the film and loving it. It’s profoundly humbling, like dreams coming true.”
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