by Charles Kirkland Jr.
A heart-wrenching tale of the life of the iconic mega-superstar is told by those who knew her best in the documentary simply titled, Whitney.
The life and times of Whitney Houston, the performer, were fraught with joy and pain from her first appearance on the Merv Griffin show in 1983 to her singing of the National Anthem to her last role in the movie Sparkle in 2012. But the whole life of Whitney was filled with so much more.
In the documentary, Whitney, the story of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, known as “Nippy” to her family and close friends, is told by those who knew her best, her family. Differently from last year’s Whitney: Can I Be Me, instead of starting at the end, Whitney starts at the beginning with Whitney living on the violent, riot-riddled streets of Newark, New Jersey.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) Whitney plays like a snapshot out of time. Macdonald, a veteran of documentaries, uses pop culture news footage and clips to ensure that the audience sees the events of Houston’s life in proper perspective to the events going in the world. Although they sometimes have no correlation to each other, they do serve to keep the movie grounded in reality and allows the audience to feel like they are being given the truth in the movie.
The question is not whether the story is true but how much of it is true. By interviewing only the family (and a few people who worked for Houston), the movie is a little slanted. A perfect example is that Robyn Crawford, Houston’s longtime best friend and manager, is only present in the movie through archival footage. Since the family lays a lot of blame at Crawford’s feet it would have been interesting to hear her side of the story. Unfortunately, she never appears.
While the Houston family in the movie makes many shocking statements about contemporaries Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and the like and places blame on many others, they do accept their roles in the tragedy of Whitney. Brother Gary Houston, who father John Houston along with older brother Michael was appointed as Whitney’s bodyguard, accepts the responsibility for introducing Whitney to drugs. Another one of the bombshells dropped in the movie was that Bobby Brown was a “lightweight” in drug use in comparison to the Houstons.
As the movie progresses, many things are brought to light about the life and career of Whitney but even more is revealed about the Houston family itself. From John the shady businessman and the harsh tutelage of matriarch, Cissy to the substance abuse revelations and ultimately the homophobic undertones expressed by the family members. Brother Gary called Robyn Crawford, a known lesbian, “a nobody…an opportunist, a wannabe” with sincere and intense vitriol. He finishes by calling her involvement with Whitney evil and wicked.
There is a moment where Whitney is said to be the subject of molestation as a child. (they name the abuser who can not respond because she is dead.) Implications are made that Whitney struggled with her sexual identity because of the abuse. Macdonald stated that he saw some tell-tale signs of child abuse when he was watching the footage that was assembled for another documentary that did not come to life. He stated that he did not force the issue but it was revealed in the last weeks of filming. It is at this point in the movie that it takes a more complex and serious tone.
Nothing is held back in the film. Whitney’s marriage to Bobby Brown. Whitney’s relationship with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina and how it led to Bobbi’s tragically similar death and ultimately the depths of her pain and her posited need for drugs. All of this told by the Houston family who intend to relay the story of Nippy but end up truly baring themselves.
In the end, Whitney, rated R for language and drug content, is a cathartic release for the family, an opportunity for them to deal with their demons and mainly their participation in the tragic loss of the greatest voice of a generation. It dispels many rumors about her and brings to light the life of the record-setting pop superstar. After seeing the movie, you will never hear Whitney’s music the same again.