When Lifetime first announced the Whitney Houston movie, only two years after her death, disaster was the only logical result. Lifetime has a history of making mockeries out of iconic pop culture figures. I didn’t watch the infamous and universally-panned Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, but I did watch Liz & Dick, the retelling of the legendary romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and will go down in history as the second-to-final nail in Lindsay Lohan’s coffin. With that tragic misfire and my own love for Whitney in mind, I could be forgiven for slapping a “Denied” label on Whitney’s Lifetime film right out of the gate.
Then it was announced that Angela Bassett would be directing, and the film’s outlook became a lot brighter. Besides being one of the best actresses of her generation (with an Oscar nomination to her credit), she also knew Whitney personally, working alongside her on 1995’s Waiting to Exhale. It seemed possible that this biopic, with Yaya DaCosta looking quite convincing as the indomitable diva, might be worth watching and wouldn’t be a low-budget disaster that completely embarrassed everyone involved.
As it turns out, it’s not the kind of disaster you would expect from Lifetime. On a purely technical level, Whitney does work. Bassett works her presumably small budget to the last penny to provide a very polished and well-made product. There is a lot of style here, both figurative and literal, that you wouldn’t expect. The costume department deserves particular praise for successfully conveying Whitney’s vibrant fashion sense, even recreating, to the letter, her wedding dress. The music also works here; Deborah Cox, nor any female artist to be frank, can match Whitney at her best, but Cox does an excellent job with the songs she’s given, especially with “I’m Your Baby Tonight”.
When it comes to the woman singing along to Cox’s vocals, Yaya DaCosta does a more-than-decent job playing Whitney Houston. She is clearly talented, and had many of Houston’s mannerisms down pat, even if she was prone to overacting at points. She does great work with a pretty bad script, as does Arlen Escarpeta who played Bobby Brown. There was serious chemistry between the two, which helped justify (to an extent) the surprising number of love scenes throughout the film. If the film didn’t prove to be such a mess, this could’ve served as a genuine launching pad for both.
With all of that said, it would seem like Whitney was a success. Unfortunately, there’s the matter of plot left for consideration, and that is where the movie collapses.
Whitney is not a movie about Whitney Houston. Yes, it bears her name and features a capable actress playing her, but she is not the film’s focus. The focus is squarely, and shockingly, aimed at Bobby Brown, her husband of fourteen years. The movie covers the couple’s beginning at the 1989 Soul Train Awards through to approximately 1995, when Whitney was riding high with The Bodyguard and Bobby’s career had devolved into a rampage of drugs, arrests and infidelity. It was confirmed beforehand that the film would mostly deal with Bobby and Whitney’s marriage, but no one could’ve anticipated just how much energy and screen time was devoted to Bobby himself. Even worse, the film spends much of that energy and screen time trying to cast Bobby as some unwitting and lovesick victim, of Whitney’s indifference-turned-passionate devotion, Clive Davis’s money-hungry desperation to turn Whitney into a megastar after The Bodyguard, and the run-of-the-mill pressures of being in the music industry. If I knew nothing about either person beforehand, I would actually feel bad for Bobby Brown. And yet, the film is called Whitney.
Whitney isn’t offered nearly enough deference to any internal struggles she may have faced as “The Voice”, as she was often called. The film boils the complicated diva down to the basic tentpoles of sex, cocaine use, Bobby-related meltdown, and some musical performances. Her monumental career achievements are mentioned once in passing. There is nothing about her struggles with black audiences who claimed she had become whitewashed, nor a real examination of her elegant girl-next-door facade. Her struggles with pregnancy and motherhood were touched upon, but that shed more light on Bobby than Whitney, which is just inexcusable. There was plenty of Whitney-focused material that could have been explored. Instead, the film virtually ignores it all to showcase a romance that snatched Whitney of any agency in her own life and gave it to the man who, in a key scene, got another woman pregnant right before they were married. To call this film a Whitney Houston biopic is tantamount to fraud. I don’t know how much of this is owed to Angela Bassett or the writers, but it boggles my mind that anyone could’ve seen this film and think they were doing anything, good or bad, for the diva. She is barely even present.
Whitney fails because it ultimately isn’t about Whitney Houston at all. It’s about Bobby Brown. Better yet, it serves as an apology to Brown for all of the years he spent in Whitney’s shadow, re-fashioning him into a victim of her stratospheric fame. It’s misguided at best and borderline sexist at worst. Either way, it’s a mess, no matter how well-made it was.