In the past, director Kevin Macdonald has chronicled major artists like Mick Jagger and Bob Marley. His documentary about the life of Whitney Houston gained attention at the Cannes festival this year, and no wonder. It’s a powerful film and it did present some news – Whitney’s brother Gary and her longtime assistant Mary Jones tell us that Gary and Whitney were molested as children by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick (who died in 2008).
Mary’s analysis: this prevented Whitney from embracing her bisexuality and steered her onto a self-destructive path. This is an illuminating treatment of her life.
Born in 1963, Whitney Houston grew up in Newark, New Jersey where she also at a very young age experienced the riots of ”the long, hot summer of 1967”. The family moved to a better, middle-class neighborhood, East Orange, where Whitney was sometimes bullied by other children because of her light skin. She soon followed in the footsteps of her mother, cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and godmother, Darlene Love. Church was to Whitney the place where she could train her voice, and her parents Cissy and John soon developed a strategy for their teenage daughter’s career in music. After the enormous breakthrough in 1985, Houston became one of the planet’s most recognizable stars.
Accused of being “too white”
Where do you go after such a seismic event in your life? The filmmakers show how Houston did everything right in the beginning career-wise. Her immense talent also guided her to success as an actor – the part in The Bodyguard (1992) showcased her as an artist but also proved that she could do more than sing. Kevin Costner is interviewed, pointing out how effortlessly the film also showed him, a white man, and her, a black woman, as a couple; race wasn’t an issue.
There were times though when racial issues reared its ugly head and Houston was accused of being ”too white”, just like when she was bullied as a child; at the same time, the film also shows how black audiences remained faithful to Houston as a beacon of light in a country that often worked against them. Her now legendary rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl served as a unifier – there was no way you could watch that performance and not be blown away. It didn’t take long though for Houston’s career to start falling apart; numerous bad influences killed any hope of real recovery. Her mother, brothers and ex-husband Bobby Brown all agreed to being interviewed by Macdonald, but they still manage to come across as the cause of everything bad that happened to her – from the way Cissy raised her, to the brothers scoring drugs for her, to her father’s attempt to rob her blind, to Brown’s utterly destructive presence in her life. It is sadly clear how it affected Whitney as a mother, as she dragged her daughter Krissie along on tours, subjecting her to the nightmare of drug abuse and leaving the job of raising her to the hired help.
Interviews with people who worked for Houston, in her home and on her career, provide a lot of insight. One key person missing is Robyn Crawford, the best friend who was at times described as Whitney’s ”lover” and who had a falling out with her over Brown; it would certainly be interesting to hear her take.
Moving, dark and frustrating, this film is arresting because of great interviews and fascinating archive material; news footage help us place her and events in proper context. So much has been crammed into the movie, but its poignant moments really stand out, revealing truths about homophobia, the African-American experience – and Whitney as an individual.
Whitney 2018-Britain. 122 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Lisa Erspamer. Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Trivia: Houston’s life and career was also chronicled in the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017).
Last word: “When I was first approached about it, my immediate response was that I’m not really interested in Whitney Houston. But then I did two things. I met Nicole David, her longtime agent, who was incredibly close to her. And she said to me, ‘I just don’t understand what happened, she was the most lovely girl,’ and this was someone who knew her really well. And I thought that was interesting. And then Nicole sent me this article about Whitney’s rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and how that changed how the song has been understood and sung ever since. So I think it was the combination of thinking there’s this really interesting personal mystery, but also how this woman was a musical genius. She’s someone who has had such a big impact on culture but is not taken seriously.” (Macdonald, The Hollywood Reporter)