I saw the new documentary “Whitney” in a small Swedish cineplex during a heatwave; there was a couple down the row who appeared to be contemporaries of mine (or put another way, people who had lived through Whitney Houston’s public career) and some younger people. We were scattered in the mostly empty rows, private and quiet during the lengthy parade of soda commercials and government STD warning videos before the film. But at the end credits, after a riveting 2 hour plus immersion into tragedy, and as Whitney Houston finally is returned to her most glamorous form and full talent, volcanically singing “I Have Nothing”, with lyrics that now sound prescient, it didn’t feel like we were strangers. I looked over at the silver-bobbed woman closest to me; her eyes glistened like mine, searching for a bit of consolation.
I wanted to suggest to everybody gathered that we go get a fika to talk about what we’d all just witnessed, heal the hurt of watching something so painful through the balm of small community. You could say that’s what Whitney Houston spent most of her life really chasing, wistful for the sense of community she had at church and when her family gathered around the piano in their Newark home to sing gospel, when her hopes and connections were still plentiful. (Maybe that’s one reason she kept so many family and friends employed in her entourage, a decision that would strangely result in her betrayal and isolation.)
Of course, as director Kevin MacDonald intelligently demonstrates, Houston’s nostalgia for community is only one thread of many he weaves together, and to be honest two hours scarcely feels like enough time to accommodate them. Even with Nick Broomfield’s recent doc aired on Showtime, “Whitney-Can I Be Me’, and of course numerous other accounts, tabloid and serious, it’s clear that the many psycho-social complications layered into Houston’s story could easily make for a long-form series along the lines of the Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made in America” and still be engrossing.
The bones of the film will be familiar to anyone who has seen Asif Kamadia’s “Amy” about Amy Winehouse and by now the arc feels alarmingly archetypal; think also of “Janis” and “Judy”, “La Vie en Rose”, “Lady Sings the Blues” and going back, “The Helen Morgan Story” and more. Woman from “humble beginnings” with “once-in-lifetime” vocal talent; family who live out their frustrated dreams for recognition and wealth through promotion of their daughter; at some point, she defiantly chooses a man whose own career fades or never ignites; they play in a libertine ocean of drugs and sex, risking addiction, and the undertow eventually takes her (usually right as she’s grabbed a lifeline for a comeback.) Of course this pathology isn’t just for the artist to act out; there’s a codependent part for her fans and the fickle public. With so much cinematic evidence, we could reasonably ask: do divas die for our sins? And to some extent, you could say that if they do, we never learn. Twitter was all too ready to note Beyonce’s eclipse of Jay-Z at Coachella and turning on Taylor Swift still remains a popular Instagram sport. (On the other hand, maybe there’s some survival resilience built into today’s burgeoning and arguably, boring pop star archetype: Businesswoman/Brander.)
MacDonald starts with a worn-out Cissy Houston, staring down the camera with an I-Dare-You look all the more chilling because she sits in a church pew, where it all began. She and Bobby Brown seem the most “protective” of the key interview subjects here, but such guardedness (and in Brown’s case, infuriatingly deliberate denial) ultimately feels self-protective; each, eventually has something, though by different degrees, to answer for.
Starting with her childhood in riot-torn Newark, we hear rare interviews with Whitney, in which she recalls lying on the floor as bullets flew above. Still, she and her brothers seem to live in a type of rough idyll through the consolations of family and New Jersey church and playground communities. You could argue Cissy Houston herself was a victim of the record industry’s sexism years before Whitney; it’s surprising that a backup singer for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin and aunt to Dionne Warwick still had to scrape by economically. You understand John and Cissy Houston’s desire to move and to enroll their children in more promising schools. But it’s here that MacDonald shows the seeds that later grow into thorns: Cissy’s singing career takes her away from the house, leaving the kids vulnerable to various caretakers and John’s ambition leads him to corruption in his civic job and a taste for power and its financial rewards. (It’s this greed that twists and turns into its eventual Shakespearean denouement: late in both their lives he sues Whitney for an astounding hundred million, and she, a self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl” is so hurt and angry she stays away from his deathbed.)
The poverty in Houston’s roots cannot be separated from America’s social sin of racism, just like it couldn’t with the Jacksons, and their ambition to escape it. But racism in Whitney Houston’s life took upside-down, cruel forms. She was “lighter-skinned” than many of her school friends and family members and for this she was bullied. Colorism, or Shadeism, really shows the insidiousness of racism’s legacy; internalizing their oppression, people of color (and the larger public) can favor those of a lighter-shaded skin (or those who look more Euro-rooted, more “white”) and at the same time, be resentful of the perceived advantages those who “look Caucasian” may get. So of course, if there was no social construct of racism in the first place, there would be no colorism.
Accusations of being “too white” and “not black enough” plagued Houston all her life, a strange place to be for a singer who not only prized African-American culture for its sense of home (“Home” is the first song she sings in her career stage debut) but for the black gospel music which formed her voice. Not black enough? Don’t people know this is how I learned to sing? We are given to at least contemplate that her looks (and certainly, that billion-watt smile) led her to more easily get modeling jobs than darker-skinned women in the Reagan-era and later we see Clive Davis deliberately introduce her to the public on the whiter-than-white Merv Griffin show. Her first album cover featured a woman poised and stylized to look elegant and sophisticated; her music was sometimes overproduced in common-denominator, generic ways, her voice struggling to break free of 80s synthesizers; she crossed over to early-era racist MTV while hip-hop artists were relegated to a once-a-week show. After selling millions of albums, Houston found herself bobbing amidst a tremendous, confusing backlash. (And you may find yourself enraged at Al Sharpton. He is seen leading a Whitney ‘Whitey’ boycott when it serves him, but years later at her funeral, positions himself as her lifelong defender.)
Here is where “Whitney” can also be uncomfortable for the music fan who lived contemporaneously with her career; it was cool to be anti-Whitney for being “too pop” at some point. In light of today’s growing “Who are we to judge” racial and sexual sensibilities, why did her choice of material and style matter so much? Maybe that mix of commercial record-making was what she favored. But how complicit were we in promoting this particular torment? Obviously the “too white” accusations followed the other major MTV black artist of the early 80s, Michael Jackson as well, compounded by the appearance and common belief that he had internalized colorism to the extent of changing his features “to be more white.” Yet both played to audiences of all races, all genders, all ages and identifications — they willed stadiums of blended shades into harmonious co-existence by the sheer magnitude of their talent. And as Kevin Costner reminds us in his interview clip, “The Bodyguard”, derivative and manipulative as it was, featured a landmark interracial romance and kiss. These were no small achievements.
So when “Whitney” tells us in a small but jaw-dropping moment that during a low point her assistant takes her to visit Michael Jackson in his hotel room, and they both, with a view of the world so uniquely positioned, sit together and look at each other and can’t bring themselves to speak, it’s surprising but not shocking. Here are two extraordinarily gifted musical talents, both the victims of alleged childhood abuse (“Whitney” makes a strong case that Houston was molested by her adult cousin, one of those childhood caretakers.) Here are two black artists who transcend systematic racism at one level by using the music of their heritage, only to find themselves accused of denying their race. Here are two adult children of parents who worked out their dreams on them, and here are two family members under extreme pressure to keep their family employed and away from the dreaded poverty of their beginnings. And as we know now, here are two addicts. No words, just looking into each other’s eyes; it’s not hard to imagine.
The stage was literally set for Houston to be captivated by Bobby Brown at the very BET awards where even just the annoucement of her name was booed for the intangible sin of not being “black enough.” Brown’s stage persona and dance moves seem dated now, but at the time, he had street cred, and you’re left to wonder: in the subconscious level of her attraction to Brown, at least, was there a sense that being with him would bring her the ticket back to black community acceptance, and could their whirlwind, head-scratching romance silence the rumors about Whitney and her close friend, assistant and de facto stage manager Robyn Crawford?
And this brings another fascinating layer into play: Houston’s complex, evolving relation to the LGBTQ community. If she was a young singer starting out today, she might have taken to Instagram and announced she was pansexual, or as one of her associates says in the film, “sexually fluid” and it might get brief, even favorable attention. But in the eighties, homophobic pressure was intense. The endlessly played video “I Want to Dance with Somebody” featured cute boys, but now looking back, maybe Houston’s emphasis was on “some”, or “any”, body, regardless of gender. Certainly Crawford seemed to develop into a professional who was employed by Houston to help her successfully craft her stage persona (as Houston says in a home video on the film, onstage she’s “Whitney” but offstage she’s “Nippy”, her childhood nickname.) And certainly it’s possible Houston wasn’t attracted to many women, just Crawford. Whatever the case, the tensions between Crawford and others who wanted power within the Whitney Houston machine are easy to understand. But how much of that tension was exacerbated by the homophobic discomfort felt by members of the family and her management, the threat they perceived to Houston’s acceptance by the public and thus their financial well-being, and of course, the impossibilities of a romantic triangulation between a “close friend and confidante” with such a preening husband as Bobby Brown?
MacDonald frequently uses quick-cut, contextual montages to show what was happening in the world concurrent to Houston’s rise and fall. In one, we very briefly see an ACT-UP poster, circa late eighties, that attempted to out Houston. The rumors that she was bisexual or lesbian were not exactly whispers in the gay community, and with some, there was anger that people were dying of not just AIDS, but lack of political and social will due to homophobia. The logic was that if more public figures would come out, the acceptance of gay people would be accelerated, and lives could be saved. Houston was a target of that righteous fury.
Yet in the years that followed, and especially after “The Bodyguard”, Houston gained a type of winking acceptance within the gay community, albeit one with an eye towards her persona as a diva and a new icon of “camp.” Drag queens frequently performed “I Will Always Love You”, often with a comic exaggeration of her vocal excesses, but it may have been “I Have Nothing” that had the most cabaret, stomp-the-floor, hold-back-the-tears appeal. The anthem has a masochism that wouldn’t be out of place in a Judy Garland concert, but is sung with such dramatic strength that you know the real point is not desolation but determination to survive in the face of loss. I doubt it was just drag queens who knew all the words to the song but also many gay people who performed it in private with pantomimed realness. (Years later, of course, “I Have Nothing” would be diluted to become music competition show fodder.)
And in what might some might argue was yet another comeback in her career, around 1999, Houston toured behind an album that supposedly evidenced the decline of her voice. But when Houston sang out of her lower register, with a hard-to-hide hoarseness, it could actually be quite gratifying. (This is when even music critics who had mocked Houston’s monster “Bodyguard” recordings, like the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, noted that as she relaxed and went back to her gospel roots in concerts she was showing greater artistry than perhaps any time in her career.) So when gay party DJs took an otherwise middling Houston radio hit, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” and remixed it into a thunderous dance anthem, it reverberated on the circuit party scene like few others. Not only was the sass and energy easy to grab onto at 2am, but the “I’m going to make it anyway” refrain was liberating to sing and shout for a group of people who were still being decried by fundamentalists and congressmen. At that point, Houston couldn’t have been more relevant to the LGBTQ community.
Yet Houston’s own choice to stay with Bobby Brown well past any reason, and the sad spectacle of her public denials of drug use (“Crack is wack, Diane!”) even as she visibly deteriorated on stage, got so infuriating and uncomfortable that she became a figure of camp derision, rather than camp affection. Maya Rudolph’s hilarious impersonation of her on SNL generated the oft-imitated “Bobby!”, a riff on her disastrous decision to take part in the Bravo reality show, “Being Bobby Brown.” (MacDonald’s film only has time to glance at the show.) The laughs at Houston’s expense certainly look callous when examined in “Whitney” and we in the audience again look complicit. As her brother says, she was in the midst of a disease, and people laughed?
Stil, who could have thought participating in “Being Bobby Brown” was a good idea? Though there were some light “stars are just like us” moments, Bravo’s winking but unsparing cameras certainly tore up any remaining shreds of Whitney Houston’s American Princess gown (Maybe that’s what drove Houston to it). TMI gross-out scenes alternated with a watchful viewer’s concern for their daughter Bobbi Kristina, who we saw become an unwitting extra in the codependent drama of her parents hotel room sex and narcotic ennui.
This was a time when many fans — around the globe, within the black community, within the LGBTQ community, within the music-loving community — just threw up their hands, said a hail mary, and looked for rays of hope, or at least answers. The mystery of personhood is truly evidenced here: according to the few interviews with Robyn Crawford published (she’s not interviewed in the film), nobody really told Whitney Houston what to do, and that means the destructive moral choices she made were ultimately hers. Their reverberations include the most significant: the impact on Bobbi Kristina, whose death by addiction and bathtub is so darkly entwined with her mothers’ own method of passing it’s hard to humanly contemplate.
Whitney Houston may have just wanted to honor her gift of singing, and knowing poverty, may have also felt obligated to pursue a path that would provide financial security for her family. But within months of saying yes to this career, she was launched onto a missile for the rest of her life and could barely hang on — really, who could? From the astute observations made in the film’s interviews — from her sister-in-law Pat Houston, from Mary Jones, from her film agent Nicole David, musical director Rickey Minor and remaining siblings Gary and Michael — many people tried to slow it down, but many also fueled it. None were surprised when it crashed.
And at a crash site, people become detectives and here’s where the mystery of a person goes beyond the simplistic idea that people are the sole drivers of their fates. “Whitney”, with its Rashomon-interviews and contextual collages, also intends to get at the complicated social drivers that influence those decisions, and the film’s excellence is that we might not just look at those factors’ impact on Houston, but also for any person, for ourselves.
Maybe it’s just me, but if one thread started to dominate, one clue, it’s in the realization of how powerful, and yes, how “toxic”, shame can be. For Whitney Houston, there’s much evidence of that shame. The shame one can feel by being poor. The shame of being “too black” or “not black enough”, as well as all the shame piled onto people of color whenever they embraced their own agency and power. The shame of experincing one’s sexual orientation as “unacceptable” to your church and your culture, and then the shame of knowing you’ve crafted a persona to hide it. The shame of eclipsing your parents, eclipsing your husband and daughter. The shame of being accused of squandering your talent. The shame of leading a double-life caught between your faith and your hedonism. The shame of a father who sues you for money. The shame of making cruel decisions as a way to survive in the music business. The shame that leads you to addiction, and the shame of not being able to escape it. The shame of everybody seeing this, of not being able to escape your face in a supermarket checkout line, and the shame of becoming a public joke after you’ve been a public object of affection. The insidious, sometimes lifelong shame of being a child victim of abuse. The term “shame spiral” and “toxic shame” — may feel to some like cliches of the day. But if “Whitney” shows anything, it’s this: Shame kills.
So if you carry any affection at all for Whitney Houston, or if you lived through any part of her career, be aware that you may be quite moved by the end of the film, and it might not be just for her. The film prompts larger questions and even provocative social self-examination. It can be devastating at its end, and you might find your own moviegoing stranger in a row nearby whose eyes catch yours even as you both shake your heads, both of you asking still: what happened? And you might feel just a bit more compassionate. Maybe set up a plan to go talk about “Whitney” afterwards, even if it’s just to know that feeling of vulnerable human connection again.
But now that the post-mortems have been conducted from every angle, not just in these film docs but on numerous youtube clips (some will surely find it controversial that Pat Houston produced this film) and Oprah episodes, if there’s anything left to be done, maybe it could just be this? That someone makes a film about only the part of Houston that many of her loved ones cite, and which are too-little glimpsed in these elegies: her love of laughter, and her moments of happiness? Even better, can someone just make a technologically sophisticated compilation of her best live performances, those times where she could just tear into a song? In the tv and film documentaries about her, it’s frequently frustrating just to get a few snippets. How about a full-on, no apologies, no need for context, concert-length sequence of her singing? It was plainly and most often, where she exorcised her demons and electrifyingly broke free of shackles; it was quite simply, her joy. And there’s no shame in that.