I can’t call the feature documentary “Whitney” my favorite film of 2018 because I didn’t actually enjoy it. What I can say is that British filmmaker Kevin Maconald’s staggeringly comprehensive look at the life of the Black pop superstar Whitney “Nippy” Houston was the most compelling movie I saw.
To be specific, “Whitney” ripped out whatever was left of my heart, put those bits into a Ziploc bag and tossed it into a locker full of our collective pain. I call the pain collective because even if you didn’t care about Whitney Houston, this film is as much about racism, classism, homophobia, addiction, sexual abuse, toxic masculinity and familial betrayal as it is about this beautiful ’80s lady with a preternatural voice.
“Whitney” (which is not to be confused with Showtime’s 2017 doc “Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’) contains all of the familiar broad strokes of Houston’s life. But then, using news and performance footage, childhood photos, and a wide range of interviews with her mom, brothers, aunties, employees, agents and others, this film picks and picks and picks until the thesis coalesces into a real story of a real person.
Known by her loved ones as “Nippy,” Houston is born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1963. Her mom is Cissy, a gospel singer best known for backing up Houston’s auntie Aretha Franklin. Her dad, John, works in planning and zoning for the city’s first Black mayor. Crossover superstar Dionne Warwick is her cousin. One of her half-brothers, Gary Garland, plays for the Denver Nuggets.
After the six-day racial uprising of 1967 in Newark, Houston’s family relocates to a rising Black middle class neighborhood in nearby East Orange. There, she sings at a Baptist church under the choir direction of her mom, runs track at her all-girls Catholic school, and is bullied for “being light skinned.” At about 17, Houston becomes the rare Black girl to model for White magazines such as Young Miss and Seventeen. All the while Cissy is training her daughter—with the intensity of Venus and Serena’s dad—to kill crowds with her voice. By 20, she signs with Arista Records and blossoms under the tutelage of the legendary music executive Clive Davis.
Houston fits right into the block of white American cheese that is ‘80s and early ‘90s pop culture, becoming the first artist in history to have seven consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Houston’s poppy image leads to some Black folks policing her identity. People—including a teenage me—could not imagine that this woman could be Whitney at her day job and Nippy at home. This failure of imagination ignores the fact that Houston’s rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” is rocking approximately 85 percent of Black preschool graduations. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, the crowd boos her. Al Sharpton stages a campaign to encourage people to “Boycott Whitney “Whitey” Houston.”
That’s why it’s so important for “Whitney” to show how tightly bound Houston was by race and class mythmaking. This image forces her to hide a series of secrets.
There is her longtime entanglement—rumored to be a romantic one—with her best high school friend and loyal assistant, Robyn Crawford. Her mom and dad, divorced due to Cissy’s infidelity, still make public appearances together. Houston has such a fondness of discussing the details of her sex life that her hairstylist buys her a vibrator for Christmas. She has a drug addiction that begins when she is a teenager dabbling with her brothers and friends. And according to her brother Michael, a female cousin molests Houston while Cissy is out of town, singing.
Within this context, the cliché of “Whitney’s ghetto ass husband, Bobby Brown, corrupted her” dies a final death. The two stars have a white-dress wedding and make a daughter, the late Bobbi Kristina Brown. They also do a lot of drugs together.
As the film intimates, Houston is (understandably) invested in the Black masculinity that Brown represents, regardless of his reckless infidelities, outbursts and other forms of toxicity. Crawford eventually tells the superstar to choose between her and Brown. Houston picks her husband.
In 1992, Houston becomes Hollywood famous via to the interracial romance drama “The Bodyguard.” Brown is intensely jealous. Her dad, who has taken over her management, unsuccessfully sues her for $100 million.
Houston’s drug use begins to take over her life. Tabloids ridicule her for losing too much weight. She wastes millions of record-company dollars by ghosting recording sessions. She goes on a demeaning press run and an international tour solely motivated by money.
We know how this ends.
Some critics and members of Houston’s family, such as her mom, hate the story that “Whitney” tells. They call it exploitative and dishonest. But I believe that there is value in this documentary in that it shows a Black woman artist boxed into a place where her real life became her fatal flaw. By the end of “Whitney” when the faded 48-year-old star dies from a drug overdose in a Beverly Hilton bathtub, it’s clear that Whitney Houston deserved more. More love, more protection, more freedom to be her full self.
More of Akiba’s Favorites:
TV Show: “My Brilliant Friend”
Music: “K.T.S.E.,” by Teyana Taylor
Hashtag/Social media campaign: #BlackVotersMatter
Book: “Well-Read Black Girl,” by Glory Emdin
Artist: Lorna Simpson for “Collages”
Meme/Gif: “This baby…”