Whitney Houston’s voice was almost otherworldly; there’s no denying it. Her legacy, though fraught with pain and tragedy, will never be erased. There has been much speculation about Houston, her career and the addictions that eventually led to her death, and now in the documentary film Whitney, Houston’s family and director Kevin Macdonald are presenting their account of the late idol’s life.
Much of the film comes from the perspective of those closest to Houston, including her brothers, Michael and Gary, as well as her mother, Cissy Houston; ex-husband Bobby Brown; and even her co-star Kevin Costner. Using these confessionals, Macdonald outlines The Preacher’s Wife actress’s childhood in New Jersey through her death on that fateful February day in 2012. What stands out immediately is that the details of Houston’s childhood are up for debate. While some in her inner circle insist that her childhood was idyllic in spite of her parent’s divorce, others tell a different story altogether. These never discussed aspects of Houston’s adolescence paint a heartbreaking tale of molestation and immense pressure to get her voice just right.
While the narrative is intriguing, some of the stylistic choices in Whitney are odd. Macdonald intercuts footage like MTV commercials and news specials throughout the film with then-contemporary footage of Houston in an attempt to orient the audience. However, it often felt distracting. Additionally, though the film was executive produced by The Bodyguard star’s sister-in-law, Pat Houston, and involved several close members of the Houston family, Macdonald did not spend a great deal of time with those nearest and dearest to Whitney, including her mother. The on-camera interviews in the film are heavily edited. Choppy cuts and transitions raise questions about authenticity, Macdonald’s access and the impartiality of Whitney.
Like Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s 2017 documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, Whitney offers never-before-seen footage of the late legend as well as her majestic vocals. In addition to these high notes, Houston’s extensive drug use and her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown are also addressed. However, the New Edition singer was unyielding and unwilling to answer any questions concerning their marriage and drug use. Overall, Whitney doesn’t seem to provide any new information aside from the molestation allegations.
Interestingly enough, the questions surrounding the “I Will Always Love You” singer’s sexuality were discussed at length. Though Houston’s longtime friend and alleged lover, Robyn Crawford, was not a central component to this story, the audience is left to speculate about her just as those in Houston’s inner circle did. What is clear is that there was a vehement distrust of Crawford which stemmed from deep-seated homophobia. Ironically, just as Can I Be Me suggested, Crawford was the only person who had Houston’s best interest and considerations at heart. Whitney suggests that losing Crawford and feeling forced to choose Brown over her best friend was deeply painful and affected Houston for the rest of her life.
Though the film starts with Houston’s rise and moves backward to her childhood, much of Whitney is non-linear, which is glaringly apparent to those who know the loose details of the Waiting to Exhale actress’s life. By piecing together certain moments in the singer’s life in an alternate timeline, Macdonald puts his spin on her life instead of laying out the events and facts as they occurred. Still, a critical detail that Macdonald highlights—which isn’t often discussed—is the contentious relationship Houston had with the black community during the early days of her career. Al Sharpton called for a boycott of the singer, labeling her “whitey” for singing pop music instead of R&B/soul. She was also booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, which was devastating to her.
Despite the overall grim tone of the film, including a spotlight on Houston’s late daughter Bobbi Kristina’s difficult childhood, less weighty moments brought some much-needed levity to Whitney. Joyful footage from tours, as well as home video of Houston and her mother throwing shade at Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, was hilarious and real. There were also flashes of hope sprinkled throughout the film. After ending her marriage, Houston checked herself into rehab and tried to get healthy. Photos and videos from the set of her final film, Sparkle, showed her laughing and dancing with actresses Carmen Ejogo, Jordan Sparks and Tika Sumpter — it was a vivaciousness that she hadn’t displayed in years. Unfortunately, addiction is not an easy thing to overcome, and in the end, Houston lost her battle.
Whitney offers little when it comes to revelations for those who know Houston’s story, but it does cast a sharper lens on a woman who gave the world her voice and got very little in return. From a beloved father whose greed shattered their relationship to an ex-husband whose ego trumped everything to the numerous people who sat idly by and watched Houston retreat further and further into herself. In it all, Whitney suggests that the late icon’s life might have been even more devastating than we initially thought.
Whitney premieres July 6, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu has her master’s in film studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.