Admittedly, I was skeptical when I heard that Angela Bassett would be directing a film about Whitney Houston’s life for Lifetime. Ms. Bassett knew Whitney personally, having worked with her in “Waiting to Exhale” (1995), and her husband Courtney B. Vance, also worked with Whitney on the film “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996). Perhaps it was because of this friendship and reverence for the star that allowed Ms. Bassett to make the, surprisingly, honest, passionate, and well-done “Whitney.”
Instead of a biography of Ms. Houston’s entire career and life, Ms. Bassett chose to focus on her passionate, obsessive and often tumultuous relationship with her then husband Bobby Brown. The film follows the duo from their initial meeting at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, through the end of her “The Bodyguard” tour.
Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston paints a portrait of a loving and beautiful woman struggling to remain present as her status as an icon swiftly overwhelms her. Whitney was clearly a woman who struggled, as many of us do, with the duality of the desires of her head and her heart.
Relative newcomer Arlen Escarpeta, while in no way favoring Bobby Brown, portrays a man in love, but still very much a product of his environment, which is evidenced by his wild ways. Only twenty years old when they initially meet, Bobby wrestles with his own demons, as he faces a career stalemate, and Whitney’s continues to soar expeditiously.
As the film tells us, at the height of their fame when they are first introduced to one another, Whitney and Bobby quickly embark on a romantic and erotic relationship. The film was especially sexy, highlighting the fact that, despite their trials and tribulations, the pair was always consumed with one another. Outside pregnancies, a miscarriage, the pressures of work, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, heighten the tension between the pair, until it seemed they could no longer function together or apart.
As time wore on, their love became toxic.
After shooting “The Bodyguard” (1992) and giving birth to her daughter Bobbi Kristina, Houston desperately wanted to set her public life aside for a moment, to be a wife and mother. Houston was exceedingly aware of her public perception. She was concerned all along that her involvement with Brown would bring a lot of scrutiny to her image and life choices.
But “Whitney” is made even better due to the fact that DaCosta and Escarpeta have amazing chemistry. It certainly helped to elevate the film from a “typical” Lifetime romance.
Though the film is not without its faults. The most glaring is the fact that none of Whitney’s actual vocals are used. Since her estate would not give Lifetime clearance, Deborah Cox’s voice is used for all of the songs in the film. Though Ms. Cox has an amazing voice, Whitney Huston’s vocals are iconic, and the fact that they weren’t used is noticeable, and certainly took me out of the story in some moments.
Similarly, the narrative did get melodramatic at times, skirting the line between being a serious film and being way too over-the-top.
But, overall, the film gives a surprisingly fresh and overarching window into Whitney and Bobby’s highly publicized and scrutinized relationship. Bassett’s choice to focus on the couple’s adoration for one another gives their relationship a more tangible view and offers more profound insight, than audiences are accustomed to seeing. Furthermore, this new representation of love is reminiscent of feelings that many of us have gone through (and perhaps are still going through) in our own lives, which made it all the more relatable.
Overall, the film left me at ease. The ability to humanize such a legendary voice and person is a great feat. The film gave me the same feeling that I had as child watching Whitney on the big and small screen. Not so unlike many of us, Whitney had her personal struggles. However there was also much love in her life, and perhaps that’s all we can ever hope for, even if you are “The Greatest Voice of All Time.”
“Whitney” premieres of Lifetime this Saturday, January 17 at 8pm ET.
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 Black Cinema geek and blogger. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.co or tweet her @midnightrami