“Amazing Grace” is a 90-minute documentary featuring footage captured in January 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist in Los Angeles, where Franklin was joined by Rev. James Cleveland and his choir for two days of gospel sessions. Warner Bros. reportedly wanted a documentary to chronicle her best-selling gospel album.
Spike Lee has described it as “One of the greatest concerts ever put to film.” But Wendy has questioned the doc’s visual quality, Franklin’s natural hair and the true motives behind the film’s release.
The family fired back in a statement saying, “1972 was the era of Black Power and Black Is Beautiful. In her short natural hair and simple makeup, Ms. Franklin was in step with the times and appropriate to the occasion. There was no ‘showgirl glamor,’ no ‘pressed hair’ and no ‘eyelashes’ – the lack of which Williams ridiculed on her program. The simplicity of the presentation gives ‘Amazing Grace’ its power.”
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Franklin’s estate also noted that Williams’ comments “indicates that she has neither seen the documentary nor understands its import or intent.”
Williams also suggested that film is being released only because Franklin’s estate is in a financial “mess.”
“I would imagine that now the bill collectors are like, ‘OK, rest in peace, Aretha Franklin. But we still need our money for this, we need money for that,’” Williams said. “So by putting this movie out, I would say the estate is probably going to be paying bills with this.”
But the family says, “This is not true.”
Below is the full response from Franklin’s estate to Wendy Williams.
“Amazing Grace” hits theaters nationwide April 19.
Aretha Franklin was an icon, a musical genius, and a much-awarded American cultural treasure. Therefore, it is astounding that on the March 15, 2019, broadcast of The Wendy Williams Show, host Wendy Williams made a series of inaccurate and disparaging statements about the Aretha Franklin concert film “Amazing Grace,” which opens in limited theaters on April 5, 2019, and nationally on April 19, 2019. Her commentary indicates that she has neither seen the documentary nor understands its import or intent.
First, “Amazing Grace” was conceived as a documentary. The footage was shot by Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack in anticipation of broadcasting a once-in-a-lifetime event – a live gospel album recording – but was never completed for technical reasons. The film remnants were rediscovered, restored and championed over two decades by producer Alan Elliott. As such, the unburnished images capture Aretha Franklin in New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972, as a premiere R&B and gospel interpreter who had just notched eight consecutive R&B Number One hits. Ms. Franklin had specifically sought to perform in a stripped-down, church-service setting. By showing a brief clip out of context and mocking its quality on her show, Williams inaccurately represented Ms. Franklin and the movie to her audience.
Second, 1972 was the era of Black Power, and Black Is Beautiful. In her short natural hair and simple makeup, Ms. Franklin was in step with the times and appropriate to the occasion. There was no “showgirl glamor,” no “pressed hair” and no “eyelashes” – the lack of which Williams ridiculed on her program. The simplicity of the presentation gives “Amazing Grace” its power. Scholars, film critics, pop culture experts, and Hollywood stalwarts have raved about the film, including Oscar-winning director Spike Lee, who recently came aboard as a producer and told Variety the film is “mesmerizing and transformative.”
Third, Williams mentioned that Ms. Franklin “made an album from this.” She failed to note that the album is Aretha Franklin’s seminal recording “Amazing Grace,” which sold more than two million copies, earned a Grammy Award, and is still the biggest-selling live gospel album of all time. By not highlighting this fact, Williams further diminished both the documentary and Ms. Franklin’s legacy.
Fourth, Williams’ statement that “Nobody’s going to the movies to see a one-shot deal, like black-and-white,” is punitive and misinformed. Thousands if not millions are clamoring to see this full-color film; many have already enjoyed repeated viewings during last December’s Oscar-qualifying one-week run in L.A. and N.Y., where the film earned glowing reviews in publications from Rolling Stone to The New York Times. “Amazing Grace” earned a 95-average rating on Metacritic and a 96 critical score at Rotten Tomatoes.
Finally, Williams suggests that the Franklin Estate sought national distribution for “Amazing Grace” to satisfy the singer’s outstanding debts. This is not true. It is only through the approval of the Estate and the efforts of the film’s producers that it is finally being seen. The public rollout for “Amazing Grace” – which includes screenings at African American museums and black churches this month – has received support from African American pastors and fans across the country. And while Franklin had initially imposed an injunction on “Amazing Grace,” her objections had nothing to do with its quality; negotiations were incomplete at the time of her death. Her family feels this documentary is another prime example of The Queen of Soul’s genius.
Williams gave additional false information in her March 15 program. Sabrina Owens, Ms. Franklin’s niece and executor of her estate, has never been head of the singer’s security detail. Ms. Owens is a career professional who holds a Master’s degree and is employed as a chief negotiator at one of the nation’s top public universities. Further, she is the personal representative of her mother’s estate, singer and songwriter Erma Franklin. Owens also created the blueprint for Franklin’s Celebration of Life and week-long homegoing services. None of Ms. Franklin’s four sons has ever served as her manager. However, Franklin’s brother, Rev. Cecil Franklin, who was a Morehouse College graduate was her manager for more than 30 years, until his death in December 1989. Contrary to Williams’ derisive reference, there is no “Cousin Junebug” making decisions for the Estate.
Wendy Williams is the host of the most-watched daytime gossip show in syndicated television. However, that does not give her license to offer misleading commentary about a legacy entertainer based on unverified information. In this instance, the show’s research team let Williams down. At a time when the media is fighting a battle against “fake news,” Williams’ continues to perpetuate false facts, and her commentary was irresponsible.