On Saturday, Lifetime premiered “Whitney,” a biopic of iconic and critically acclaimed female vocalist Whitney Houston. Viewers tuned in to see director Angela Bassett’s take on the life and times of Houston, and many fans were less than impressed with what they saw. Twitter was ablaze with comments, both positive and negative, using the #Whitney hashtag, which trended surrounding the film’s release.
Houston, who died in 2012, was more than just an earth-shattering voice, she was a beacon to black women, following in the steps of women like Chaka Khan and continuing to pave to road for female vocalists of today such as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. Houston brought intimacy and clarity to her performances, making her the most-awarded female artist of all time. It’s known that Houston struggled with relationship issues and drug use, but these are just contextual factors in the life of a woman who was so much more than that.
This is where I find a lot of issues with Bassett’s directing choices when making “Whitney.” One of the most overwhelming responses was that for a story about Houston, we see Houston’s story strictly through the context of her relationship with her ex-husband, performer Bobby Brown. This is problematic on many levels: As a biopic, it robs Houston of her own context as an artist and individual, and cinematically, it places Houston in a secondary role to Brown, who enjoys more attention from the film.
Although the biopic is titled “Whitney,” the movie doesn’t begin with Houston as a young girl, or even as a budding vocalist. Instead, it begins with the 1989 Soul Train Awards where Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown first meet. From this moment on, Whitney is either with, talking about or thinking about Bobby. However, Brown is able to explore his emotions separate from Whitney, painting her as a dependent, needy wife and Brown as an independent and conflicted man. “Whitney,” a film about one of American entertainment’s most influential women, drops the ball when it comes to depicting Bobby and Whitney equally.
Many viewers also commented on the sometimes-overwhelming focus placed on Bobby Brown. Angela Bassett responded to these concerns on her Twitter, @ImAngelaBassett, saying, “#Whitney and Bobby IMPACTED each other greatly. I wanted to show that their LOVE was stronger than either of them knew it could be.”
However, during the hour and 27 minutes Bassett had to tell Houston’s story, viewers heard more pillow talk and overstruck whimpers than the songs that made Houston great.
Amid the passionate online response, Lifetime is also showing encores of the biopic throughout the week and also has the full film available for streaming on www.mylifetime.com. If you are like me, however, pass up “Whitney” and watch the real Whitney alongside Brandy in “Cinderella” from 1997. Now THAT is cinematic genius.