Cape Town’s Liesl Tommy Brings Aretha Franklin’s Story to the Big Screen

Liesl on the left and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin on the right

It is one thing directing your first big-screen Hollywood movie. It is quite another if that movie has a budget of R800 million and it is about musical icon, Aretha Franklin. This was the responsibility given to the South African born Liesl Tommy and by the looks of the trailer, she did a fantastic job.

The film, which is set to be released on the 8th of August, features Jennifer Hudson as Aretha and tells her story from when she was a kid, singing in her father’s church choir up to where she became an international superstar. It also features icons such as Forest Whitaker as Aretha’s father and Marlon Wayans as her first husband. Other supporting roles include Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige, and Marc Maron.

Of the actors and the crew, the Fracteton born Liesl had nothing but praise, describing them as ‘focused professionals’. Most of Liesl’s praise is reserved for the iconic Forest. She described him as a ‘humble genius’ that operated “on a level of complexity… that is really impressive”. She also described Jennifer as being devoted to making Aretha come to life by preparing both her voice and practicing Aretha’s body movements, months in advance. Of the comedic icons, Marlon and Tituss, she says that people will be pleasantly surprised by how gifted and talented they are in these dramatic roles.

Liesl is grateful that both the cast and crew trusted her and in return, she trusted them back. She says that in general, a movie set has a director and everyone listens to that director. However, on Liesl’s set, she made sure that everyone was equal and had a say in what the move should look like. This led to a work environment where there was no drama and nobody was trying to outshine the other. Instead, everybody showed up on time and excited about making the vision she had in mind, come to life. This is the vision that got her both the job and the respect of everyone that worked on set.

Now, being chosen to do a movie is not as simple as it sounds and studios usually interview many directors before they choose one. Liesl says that she was contacted by the studio bosses for a meeting where she was asked to share her ideas about how she would do the movie. When she got to the meeting, she greeted everyone and jumped right into what her vision for the movie was which included the time period, the songs, and the style of the movie. After the meeting, they thanked her and told her that they would get back to her. Two weeks later, they called her back and told her that she got the job. Studios also usually first hire a screenwriter and then a director, but the studio bosses were so confident in Liesl’s vision that they hired her first.

Of course, this is Liesl’s first movie but a South African always has a plan and she is not one to come unprepared. She had always wanted to do movies and started practicing with a film camera while directing her stage plays. One of the things she did was experiment with a camera to see how she could make her theatre plays even better. Some of her plays also had to be recorded on film which basically meant that Liesl also had to ‘direct’ the cameraperson to make sure that they filmed from the right angles.

The next thing she did was practice her hand at filmmaking by directing episodes of television programs. These include popular shows such as Queen Sugar, Insecure, The Walking Dead, and Jessica Jones. By the time she started working on ‘Respect’, she was confident that she had sufficiently prepared herself for the major task of filming a big-screen movie. She had spent years making sure that she could handle a camera and once again, by the looks of the trailer, it seems like she got it right. But of course, it isn’t just about the camera. It is also about making characters come to life and for a director, that means connecting with the character on a deeper level.

When asked what part of her identifies with Aretha, Liesl quickly responded that it was Aretha’s political identity. Having been a kid in apartheid South Africa, she could understand how Aretha felt as a kid in a racially segregated US. Like Aretha, Liesl was always surrounded by adults talking about revolution and resistance. Also like Aretha, Liesl isn’t just all talk and she used her art to fight against racial and gender discrimination.

Whereas songs such as Aretha’s ‘Respect’ became a big part of the civil rights movement (the US’s version of the struggle), Liesl used the theatre to make her mark in the world of activism. Liesl’s family had moved to the US when she was 15 and it was here that she was involved with her first high school play, ‘Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf’. Written by Ntozake Shange, the play is essentially about seven African American women who have experienced horrors such as rape, abandonment, abortion, and domestic violence. This play was the beginning of her journey as an artist, a journey that would lead her to direct many plays right across the US, including the award-winning Broadway play, Eclipsed.

Eclipsed was written by Danai Gurira (who is most famously known as, Michonne, on the hit show, The Walking Dead) and it was the first Broadway play to feature an all-black and all-female creative cast and team. The play, which is about five Liberian women and their tale of survival near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War, went on become a massive hit, running for several years and receiving several awards and nominations. These included a Tony nomination for Liesl for best director, the highest honour a US stage director can receive. Her activism did not stop when she partnered with Disney to direct the R400 million stage version of Frozen.

Disney is very strict about how it does things and always features characters in their stage plays that look like the characters in the movies. The Frozen movie essentially featured all-white characters but Liesl insisted that if Disney hired her, she would be able to hire a more diverse cast. This led to the first African Americans playing the roles of Anna and Hans. Kids of all races and ages loved it and it made no difference to them that Anna was black (proving once and for all that the world will become a better place because of future generations). Cooper Howell, who played the part of Hans, said that Liesl made sure that everybody was equal and no one was treated differently because of the colour of their skin. Needless to say, Liesl had already made a major contribution towards the fight for equality, just like Aretha had.

When asked what inspiration the audience (especially young people) can get from the story of Aretha Franklin, Liesl looks at how everyone can relate to the trauma and pain that Aretha experienced. Not only did she have to deal with racial and gender discrimination, but she also dealt with childhood sexual abuse as well as the divorce of her parents, and as an adult, she survived a physically and verbally abusive marriage. However, says Liesl, “everybody has their own capability to heal themselves” and “find a light at their own dark tunnel”. The key, says Liesl, is to connect with that part of “the self” that “that is bigger than the trauma or the pain” and Aretha found this through her faith. Liesl concludes that Aretha struggled and “got trapped in her own head but she ultimately fought her way through that into a brighter, better future for herself”.

The movie will premiere on the 8th of August internationally and on the 13th of August in South Africa, in cinemas right across the country. If you’re a fan of Aretha and want to experience her larger-than-life story, be sure to show some ‘Respect’ by grabbing a ticket at a cinema near you.

If you want to watch the trailer, check it out below:

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