Lifetime’s Whitney Houston movie, Whitney, is a biopic to the extent that a raindrop represents the ocean. Directed by Angela Bassett, the story focuses on the late singer’s relationship with Bobby Brown, beginning with when they met at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 and ending after her epic Grammys performance of “I Will Always Love You” in 1994. Deborah Cox supplies the vocals (which are, thankfully, incredible) and YaYa DaCosta (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) stars as Whitney. DaCosta does a tremendous job of capturing the unbridled physical joy the late legend demonstrated when singing; the actress’s exuberance during these performances, including her nuanced mimicry of Whitney’s phenomenal stage presence, is easily the best part of the film. Unfortunately, it is nowhere near enough to do justice to Whitney’s emotional complexity. As usual, the singer is reduced to a voice, a tumultuous relationship, and a drug addiction.
The words “Whitney Houston was one of the first black women to” could open countless sentences. She was one of the first black women on the cover of Seventeen; one of the first whose videos saw regular rotation on MTV at a time when the network faced mounting criticism for snubbing minorities; one of the first major performers to play post-apartheid South Africa. Yet her early days as an artist were filled with endless jeering. Many critics accused her of being, of all things, too white, claiming that her ruffle-no-feathers, racially-neutral pop music lacked an urban edge. As far as many in the black community were concerned, Whitney was a light-skinned white-people pleaser. When an Essence reporter asked the singer how she felt about this perception of her, Houston firmly responded, “What’s black? I don’t know how to sing black — and I don’t know how to sing white either. I know how to sing.”
While schmaltzy ballads and drug addiction bookend Houston’s career, her significance at her apex, specifically to black women, cannot be overstated. Personally, Whitney Houston was the first woman who made me see magic when I looked in the mirror as a young black girl. She was my gospel at a time and age when religion would never have reached me. So many of her songs (to say nothing of The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack) were about perseverance and belief in oneself. She encouraged not only personal elevation but the elevation of her peers as well. When Clive Davis, the mega-producer who signed her at 19, suggested Houston record the entire Waiting to Exhale soundtrack on her own, Whitney refused, seeing it as an opportunity to represent a multitude of voices. If the film were to be about empowerment, the soundtrack would be as well.
And yet, like so many pop stars, Whitney’s own empowerment was often lacking and her autonomy limited. The movie portrays this at least once, when Clive insisted that she tour in support of The Bodyguard soundtrack instead of staying at home to raise her newborn daughter, as she wanted. That crushed her.
In the book Remembering Whitney, Houston’s mother Cissy writes, “The stage was the one place she always knew she was in control.” There is, without doubt, a fascinating Whitney Houston movie to be made of what the other 90% of her life was like. There’s also one to be made about what her life was like before she became the Whitney Houston — the endless training sessions with Cissy (the musical director of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church), the bullying she experienced throughout her youth, surviving an increasingly fractured family life while making her singing debut with a song called “Home.”
Instead, Bassett’s movie spends a substantial portion of its runtime depicting the young entertainer as an unstable and petulant partner to Bobby Brown (played by Arlen Escarpeta) with Whitney reaching for the powder any time she is under stress. Bobby, on the other hand, comes across as a Boy Scout. When Whitney offers him drugs at her 26th birthday party, Brown tells her he’s worked too hard to risk messing up. Where he comes from, he says, there are only two ways out: dead or in jail.
According to the movie, things start to head south in their relationship because Bobby is questioning his worth as an individual. He wants to be seen as an artist in his own right. He doesn’t want to be seen as Mr. Houston. So he acts out, cheats, drinks, takes drugs. Whitney’s own bad behavior isn’t afforded the same emotional nuance. She’s depicted as insecure and needy, but without any real context. Missing is the fact that Bobby actually had something over her, too: He was seen as a “legitimate” black artist. When they met at the Soul Train Awards, Whitney was booed, for the second year in a row, when her name was announced as a nominee — a trauma you won’t see in the movie.
I initially had some hope for Whitney, in part because Bassett came to the project with vast experience playing black icons herself (Tina Turner, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, and Betty Shabazz, twice). Regrettably, the film fails real fans while rewarding the Lifetime viewer who may casually appreciate Whitney’s music and know all about that Diane Sawyer “crack is wack” interview — but who doesn’t care to know much else. This distinction is important. The question of who the network’s viewers are and what they want to see trumps the question of who the singer was and what her legacy should be. And that’s a shame.