Gabrielle Dennis has an aura of fearlessness about her. The Howard University alum first rose to fame in 2008 when she stepped onto the television scene as Janay, the woman who came between Derwin (Pooch Hall) and Melanie (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) on the long-running dramedy The Game. Since then, Dennis has claimed her spot in the Marvel Universe in Netflix’s Luke Cage, starred opposite Morris Chestnut on the medical drama Rosewood and has even appeared on the beloved Issa Rae comedy Insecure.
Now, Dennis is taking on the role of a lifetime as the late Whitney Houston in BET’s The Bobby Brown Story. Houston left behind a voice and legacy that was so impactful that it still rings out across the globe, so it wasn’t a role that Dennis took lightly. “I wouldn’t say there was necessarily a fear,” she explained to me ahead of The Bobby Bown Story premiere. “Going into it, understanding how important this role is, how important the need for me to approach it with a certain level of respect and being very delicate because of who she is, it was definitely a challenge. The hardest thing, I think, was that it was such a rushed project. We shot two films in six weeks. It’s just such a whirlwind. Things go so quickly. It was a lot of hard work in the preparation and the studying of her. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time on set to just be playing around. It was just kind of like, ‘Girl, during your time off, it’s just … it’s watching videos; it’s studying your lines.'”
Though Houston had such an energetic spirit, many aspects of her life, especially her marriage to Brown, were often filled with darkness. It was a weight that Dennis had to shake off when filming wrapped. “When I finally wrapped, it was definitely a relief,” the Luke Cage actress said. “It took a while to get Whitney off of me because I care so much about her, and I feel like there’s this relationship that I have with her now, even though I’ve never met her — it’s a relationship that I have with her now that’s different from the one I had with her before. I went on a journey of trying to understand her, her mental space and the things that she went through, especially during her relationship and her marriage. So there’s a lot of that darkness and that heavy weight that I had to sit with during that process, and it was hard and very emotional. At the end of the day, you get so upset. She’s not here, and she should be here. It’s very heartbreaking.”
Though Houston passed away in 2012 and is no longer here to speak for herself, having Brown and other people that knew the songstress on The Bobby Brown set was crucial for Dennis’ connection with The Bodyguard legend. “Woody [McClain] had Bobby right there,” Dennis expressed. “If he had questions, he would ask him things. For me, talking to Babyface or Bobby Brown or people that were in her circle—their version of what they saw of her helped in my research. However, it wasn’t the same as being able to talk to her one-on-one. It was a lot of watching videos and seeing things that were in her own words. She’s just an extraordinary person to me and will always be. I listened to a lot of Whitney music and just tried to live in that space. People would say that she and I had a ton of things in common. There were many moments on set where I wasn’t trying to emulate her, but Bobby would be like, ‘You’re weirding me out right now. You’re just like Whitney right now.’ Even his brother, Tommy, was like, ‘Wow.’ So it was special. The Browns were very kind to me throughout the process, and everyone loved Whitney. There wasn’t anyone that I spoke to that had anything ill to say of her, including Bobby.”
Though the film is based on Brown’s life and career, Dennis wanted to be sure that Houston was fairly depicted. “[Kiel Adrian Scott] was very sensitive, as well,” Dennis said. “I never felt like there was a moment where anyone had an ill intent to make her appear any kind of way, and that was very important to me. Having that dialogue with the director and the producers and feeling like, ‘OK, we’re all on the same page. I don’t feel like there’s anybody here trying to make her look bad.’ Their truth is their truth, and she was a very conflicted person and a very loving person, and kind, and sweet, and special, and talented, and gifted and of God. There’s just so many layers to Whitney Houston, and we as fans only got to see one side of that. At the end of the day, she was a mother and a wife, and those were things that were extremely important to her.”
Overall, Dennis is proud of how everything turned out and that the film will also give Brown the opportunity to share his perspective; a viewpoint that is often misinterpreted or twisted. “Everybody had a hand in how their tragic love story ended,” she reflected. “He speaks a lot of truth, brave truth, in this film, and I’m just hoping that people will be able to go on a journey, sit back, and just really be open to what this story has to provide. Because at the end of the day, it’s a story about survival and perseverance.”
Though she has now hung up Houston’s microphone, Dennis certainly isn’t done playing complex characters. She hopes to return to her role as Tilda in the third season of Netflix’s Luke Cage. After watching the character try to bond with her mother, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), learning a devastating truth about her family and finding herself in the crosshairs of the diabolical Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), it looks like Tilda is keen to pivot toward her villainous alter ego, Nightshade. However, for now, Dennis is staying coy about her future with Marvel. “I haven’t had a chance to speak to Cheo [Hodari Coker ] in depth about what plans he has for this character,” she admitted. “There are many ways [Tilda] can go. For me, finding out how she’s gonna deal with her actions is going to be most interesting. First of all, we have to get picked up for season three, but hopefully, my character returns. She’s a very conflicted soul, and it’s going to be very interesting to see her character deal with figuring out is she going to be good or evil.”
Until she knows more about her potential return to Marvel, Dennis is excited to pivot toward comedy. “I come from a background of stand-up comedy and sketch, and it just so happens that the way this industry found me and plopped me into the eyes of the masses has not been in that space,” she said. “Something I want to do next is a comedy, and I definitely want to create content. People have asked me about doing music … I’m just trying not to block my blessings, so wherever the Lord takes me …”
For now, Dennis feels blessed to be a black woman in the entertainment industry. In the past few years, the doors have swung open, welcoming so many talented black people into the space, proving there is more than enough room for everyone. “I’m just happy,” she expressed. “It’s so celebratory to be able to text and call and congratulate so many of my peers. There was a time where there weren’t enough of us working, and it’s hard to celebrate yourself or celebrate others. Now, I feel like everybody is eating. Everybody is either taking off or in the process of taking off or just right at the right cusp. It takes a long time. I think it took me ten years to get to a point where it was finally like, ‘I’m surviving; I’m making it.’ I just hope the people that are aspiring to do this business either in front of or behind the camera understand when we see people like Tiffany Haddish take off or Issa Rae take off, these aren’t overnight successes. These are people who put in the work. I feel like it’s a game of consistency and persistence, and as long as you stay the course and stay true to who you are, you’ll win. That’s what I love the most about those two examples is that they did not waver in who they are as artists. Your win is waiting for you, and that’s what’s so inspiring and most inspiring when I look around at all my peers who are winning right now. I’m overexcited about all of that. It’s a great time. It’s a great time in Black Hollywood.”
The Bobby Brown Story premieres September 4 and 5 at 9 p.m. on BET.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s 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 find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.