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Stars, community members pay respect to Aretha Franklin at Detroit Historical Museum

Detroit — Stars of the new Aretha Franklin biopic "Respect" joined family members to honor the music icon's life at the Detroit Historical Museum Sunday.

The Detroit Historical Museum unveiled Franklin's handprints in Legends Plaza, making her the 31st person included. Franklin's handprints, which were created during the dedication of Aretha Franklin Way in 2017, are now on permanent display in the Plaza

“Legends Plaza stands as a testament to the worldwide contributions of Detroiters," Elana Rugh, Detroit Historical Society president and CEO, said in a statement. "We are proud that Ms. Franklin chose to add to her legacy with a permanent display on our plaza at the Detroit Historical Museum, and we couldn’t imagine a more appropriate space for her handprints to be accessible to her fans from Detroit and across the globe.”  

Sunday's unveiling took place just before the opening of a commemorative exhibit on Franklin, which chronicles her life up to her death in 2018. The temporary exhibit includes artifacts from her life as well as props and outfits used in "Respect," which is being released August 13.

The biopic tracks Franklin's rise from a church singer to international star. Franklin was known for songs including "A Natural Woman" and her 1967 hit "Respect," from which the title of the movie is pulled. Having started her recording music at age 14, Franklin received 18 Grammy Awards over the course of her career.

"We know how much Aretha Franklin means to our community," Rebecca Salminen Witt, chief strategy and marketing officer for the Detroit Historical Society, said at the unveiling.

"We were really excited when we heard there was going to be a new movie about her life, and we had something special in our collection that was just waiting for the appropriate time to be shared with Detroit."

"Respect" is the first film from director Liesl Tommy, the first woman of color to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play. Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson portrays Franklin in the film, joining a cast that includes Frank Whitaker and Audra McDonald.

Both Tommy and Hudson joined Franklin's family members for the unveiling of the handprints in Legends Plaza.

Members of Franklin's immediate family also attended to watch Hudson and Tommy remove the cover from the handprints. Kecalf Franklin, Aretha's son, said "it means everything" to see his mother commemorated.

"We are grateful that everybody is recognizing her and her accomplishments in life," Kecalf said, adding that his family has seen the movie and thought it was "awesome."

The exhibit, which runs until the end of the month, opened to the public Sunday afternoon. COVID-19 has restricted the museum to being open Thursday through Sunday each week.

Album covers, decorative dresses and a piano were among the artifacts on display at the museum. A cover of The Michigan Chronicle commemorating her death and a proclamation naming an Aretha Franklin Day in Detroit are also on display.

A large sign in the exhibit also details her commitment to social justice, describing Franklin as an advocate for civil rights and women's rights and regularly hosting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jessie Jackson.

Visitors like Mary Jones of Detroit were pleased to see the exhibit on Franklin. Jones said she got to the museum a half hour before it opened to see it on Sunday.

"Detroiters should come down and take a look at this display," Jones said, noting Franklin's deep commitment to the city she grew up in.

Franklin moved to Detroit as a young child and regularly visited, even as she rose to fame. Her body is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.

In addition to Aretha Franklin Way, the Queen of Soul is also the namesake of the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit.

Jones said she felt a connection to Franklin because of her connection to the city and lyrics about the changes people experience in life. Jones went to Franklin's funeral and visited her body after she passed in three different places, she said, because "she was someone you could not forget."

At the exhibit, Jones saw the cover of "Aretha's Gold," an album featuring some of Franklin's greatest hits. Jones said she planned to go home and listen to the album after leaving the museum.

"I really think she would be pleased with what they've done here," Jones said. "I really do."