Casting the Queen of Soul

In a recent interview, Aretha Franklin spoke about casting dilemmas for the TV movie version of her autobiography, From These Roots.

Billy Dee Williams and Terrence Howard have committed to play her father and Smokey Robinson, but the role still up for grabs is Aretha herself. Depending on who you listen to, that is. Jennifer Hudson is rumored to be already cast, but Franklin says nothing is set yet. If it were up to her, she’d have several women play herself at different ages. (Hey, that sounds familiar. But I would really have something to say if they cast Cate Blanchett for this one.) Here’s Franklin’s short list:

I know, I know. Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino and Halle Berry? Which one of these is not like the other? But let’s start with Hudson.

She’s a logical choice. She’s proven her ability to play a complicated, sympathetic character on screen, and her powerful, flexible voice could handle any vocal gymnastics required. She’s already auditioned for Franklin, and the producers are pushing for her. Why wouldn’t they, on the heels of Dreamgirls success and an Oscar?

But there’s always the possibility Hudson might lose out (again) to Fantasia.

I generally don’t watch American Idol — I can’t stomach public humiliation — but the one season I did catch was the third. And I have a confession to make. From the moment I heard her sing “Summertime,” I was cheering for Barrino to win. Her distinctive voice has such personality that if you told me she was the reincarnation of a ’30s era diva who stomped at the Savoy, I would believe it.



Plus, she’s got an in. She’s already recorded a duet with the Queen herself, “Let Me Put You Up On Game,” for Franklin’s forthcoming duets album, Jewels in the Crown. And she seems to be holding her own in the Broadway version of The Color Purple. Assuming she can act (and I haven’t seen her try), she could carry the role.

However, singing ability is apparently not required. Halle Berry herself initiated contact about the project.

This may be the place to drop one more tidbit of information. The woman who plays Franklin doesn’t necessarily need to sing:

“There may even be a little lip syncing here and there. We’ve gotta go with some of these records [I made throughout my career]. They were classics and some of it, it will be verbal but not vocalized in its entirety.”

Eh. As much as I admire Berry, and as much as I R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha Franklin’s creative instincts (you knew that was coming), this prospect doesn’t do it for me. Berry has played a singer, Zola Taylor of the Platters in Why Do Fools Fall in Love. (There was also that weird CD rumor last year.) And maybe she can rock the karaoke machine, who knows? I still stand by my judgment: It would be too bizarre to hear Franklin’s voice while watching Berry. Just call me a literalist. In a role like this, I’d rather see a singer play a singer. And then sing. The delight of the entire project for me would be in hearing vocalists pay tribute to Franklin through her classics.

The question remains, then. Who is worthy to carry Aretha Franklin’s crown, if only for a made-for-TV movie?

An obvious (well, to me) option for Franklin’s 30’s is Queen Latifah.

She’s royalty already, we know she can act and sing, and since she’s actually pushing 40, she could cover that stage of Franklin’s life as well. I know, this is probably wishful thinking on my part, but do I even need to say how much more convincing she’d be than Halle Berry?

Another no-brainer: Jennifer Holliday.

The original Effie has stage experience and the pipes, and at 46, she’s perfectly suited to portray Franklin’s adult years. Here’s another (slightly random) reason to support her: She supports us. That’s her onstage at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s 33rd Anniversary and Auction.

That’s my own short wish list. Who else could we cast as the Queen of Soul?