How Respect Uses Design to Illuminate the Story of Aretha Franklin

While scouting locations in New York City for scenes in Respect, the new Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, production designer Ina Mayhew realized that she, set decorator Sarah Carter, and their teams were going to be tasked with recreating one of the most recognizable rooms in history.

“The only crazy thing that came up at the very last minute was that I had to build the Rainbow Room,” Mayhew tells AD. “How could I forget about that set?”

She was at Radio City Music Hall, scouting the lobby, when she walked over to the Rainbow Room. “I hadn’t been there in a long time,” Mayhew recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh no, how are we gonna shoot there? This is all wrong.’”

“I couldn’t cheat the railings,” Mayhew says of the Rainbow Room recreation, “which were acrylic balls stacked on top of each other on a brass rod with very, very specific details.” Shown here is Marlon Wayans as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert

After closing in 2009, the private event space on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan sat idle for five years. It reopened in 2014 following a floor-to-ceiling renovation. “They had updated it so much,” Mayhew says. “I was so disappointed.”

Intended to serve as the backdrop for a birthday scene, the Rainbow Room as it was in the 1960s would’ve still had many of the 1930s Art Deco elements it was known for. Attention to detail was absolutely nonnegotiable, and the task had to be completed in “like a week and a half,” according to Mayhew. Each day presented a new challenge. “We forgot about that detail—what about the floor?” she says, referencing the venue’s former revolving circle-shaped dance floor. “Do we have to lay the wood in that kind of crazy pattern?”

The Rainbow Room also had a striking curved staircase, where Aretha and her husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), make a grand entrance. Anything with a curve is very hard to build, especially in a few days and with carpet, Mayhew says. The issue there was to “understand how many steps there were, how the steps worked, and how it kind of tiered down to the dance floor.”

Skye Dakota Turner stars as a young Aretha Franklin and Audra McDonald as her mother, Barbara. For Barbara’s home, Mayhew used “a lot of teals, oranges, yellows, and pale greens,” she says. Set decorator Sarah Carter sourced fabrics from all over the country.

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert

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