'Whitney' react: It's all about Bobby
Angela Bassett’s Whitney Houston biopic, titled Whitney, has been the subject of controversy since its beginnings—mostly thanks to the late singer’s family objecting to the film. So Houston fans Ariana Bacle and Erika Berlin watched the Lifetime movie ahead of its Saturday premiere to see just how worthy of the anticipation it is. Read their discussion:
ARIANA: So I should start by saying my expectations for this were very, very low: Between the combination of being on Lifetime and being about a woman who died just two years ago, I was convinced the movie would be an offensive and exploitative look at the darker parts of Houston’s life. But I was (kind of) wrong.
Instead, Lifetime gave us a movie that tends to gloss over Houston’s drug problems—and that’s more about Bobby Brown than his one-time wife. In fact, Brown takes up so much of the film that it would have been more accurate to title the film Bobby. Really: I would have finished the film convinced it was a Bobby Brown biopic had I not seen the opening title that reads “Whitney.”
But just because it surpassed my (again, very low) expectations doesn’t mean Whitney‘s a successful portrayal of the singer’s life. One thing I kept thinking throughout the movie was, “Why?” Why does a movie about Whitney Houston involve so little Whitney Houston? Why did they decide to make a movie about Whitney Houston that’s essentially just a generic made-for-TV romance?
Before we get into the whys though, Erika, what were your expectations/initial thoughts?
ERIKA: My expectations were also incredibly low. Can you even name a watchable Lifetime biopic? I generally avoid them (except for Liz & Dick, which I watched almost 20 whole minutes of before I gave up). I came into this movie as a huge, skeptical fan. Of course the family wasn’t on board with a Lifetime portrayal! I wouldn’t be either if she were my mother/daughter/sister/friend. But I was willing to give this a shot out of morbid curiosity and respect to Angela Bassett.
I have to agree about Bobby Brown, though. Obviously he was going to be a major factor in this movie—they’d stated ahead of time that this was to be a love story about their early years together, and I’m fine with movies that are snapshots of a period of a few years. But damn! I learned more about Mr. Bobby Brown than our girl Whitney, and I didn’t feel like there was any resolution. They’re young, they’re in love, they’re star-crossed lovers, they fight loudly and make up passionately, and then… they stay together for another decade post-movie? Knowing the way their story pans out, the movie itself wasn’t a satisfying enough portrait of their good years to make it worth the effort.
Also, speaking of Bobby having all the screen time, I don’t believe this film—which is about a powerful, adored, strong woman—even passes the Bechdel Test! I can’t think of a single scene during which Whitney has a conversation with another woman that isn’t about Bobby! Maybe the beginning of the scene where her mother comforts her after her first miscarriage, but that quickly devolves into Cissy suggesting that this was a maybe a sign that she could leave Bobby without having any attachments. So, once again, Bobby overwhelms a moment that shouldn’t have even been about him.
A bit of praise, though: I thought Yaya DaCosta was great. As someone who has spent hours upon hours watching Whitney Houston’s videos and performances, Yaya really got her mannerisms down well. Serious request: Someone on The Tonight Show please book her to do a lip-synch battle with Jimmy Fallon! She was fantastic during the “I’m Your Baby Tonight” recording session, and I’d love to see a late-night repeat performance.
ARIANA: I completely agree with you about Yaya. She was so incredibly charming that one of my first thoughts upon finishing the movie was, “Where can I watch her season of America’s Next Top Model?” Girl can act, and girl can lip-synch. Good for her.
Sadly, I think you’re right about the Bechdel Test. It’s always disappointing to see a movie fail it, but especially one about a woman who did so much for other women. You brought up the miscarriage scene, and I hated not only that it got turned into a scolding about Bobby but also that Bobby literally swooped in and saved the day, in a way. Not only did this movie focus way too heavily on him, but it also painted him as this knight in shining armor with barely any faults. Let’s not forget though—because the movie certainly did—that their relationship had problems ever bigger than infidelity, like physical abuse.
On a similar note, I felt the movie tried to tell us that Whitney corrupted him. In the beginning, she offers him some cocaine, but he rejects the offer, says he doesn’t mess with that stuff. Later on in the movie, they’re snorting coke together and eventually, he ends up in rehab because it’s gotten so bad while she stays at home and scolds him for telling their secrets in group therapy. She comes off as a mess; he comes off as a guy working hard to get better. Eye roll.
This happens throughout the movie, too: He is consistently a “good guy.” He bought a house for his mom when he first made bank! He wants to be a good dad! He resists (initially, at least) temptations from other women! Every time he messes up, he’s redeemed. Yet where is Whitney’s redemption—and, also, why is the movie an ad for Bobby Brown?
I was more okay with there being no resolution at the end though, because I thought it was fitting to conclude the movie with her singing—just her, thank goodness—and already had enough problems with the timeline throughout the film that I feel like skipping ahead to their relationship’s end would have only made it worse. So often biopics feel the need to cover a years-long span of a person’s life, but doing that loses the details of that person’s life that make it interesting to begin with. I felt that’s what happened here: One minute, they were meeting for the first time, the next they were getting engaged. Where were the nuances, the little things that brought them together, the little things that tore them apart? That’s what I’m intrigued by, not a vague picture of their relationship’s early evolution.
ERIKA: I completely agree about this being a redemption tour for Bobby. Not only is he painted as the compassionate, misunderstood boy from the hood who is just trying to do good by his family, but all of the sweetest tidbits from the movie were about him! I wanted to come away feeling as though I learned a little more about Whitney, good or bad. I didn’t. We learned about Bobby’s hopes and dreams, but not hers. We saw how Bobby “sacrificed” for their relationship, but not her (unless you count her tearfully telling him that her choosing to be with him was the first thing she’d ever done for herself).
I think there is certainly something to the power dynamic in their relationship causing major rifts—we see it all the time in celebrity couples where the woman is far more successful than the man. Bobby had a faith that his fan-base would be loyal and grow, but it just never kept pace with his ego. Whitney’s, however, spanned age, race, and gender demographics, and was loyal until the end. She had—and has—a legacy that would be hard for anyone to live with, especially a competitive alpha-male like I imagine Bobby to be. They were not a Beyoncé and Jay Z or a Brad and Angelina, where each brought their own, independently attained A-list power to the table.
A couple of miscellaneous thoughts: There were a couple of things in the movie that—though they weren’t foreshadowing at all—called to mind her final appearances and death to me. The movie Sparkle was brought up twice—once when she was describing her love of the film to Bobby on a date, and once when she was laying in bed mouthing along to dialogue. I thought it was a sweet way to incorporate the film, even if it was a touch heavy-handed with two separate mentions. Of course, the 2012 Sparkle remake was supposed to be her big return to screen, but she died before its release, and just days after finishing work on its lead single.
The other scene that gave me pause was when Whitney was rocking her newborn, Bobbi Kristina, and singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Everyone knows Whitney’s roots were in her gospel church, and she probably sang that song 10 times a week. But, it was also the last song she ever sang publicly. Three days before her death, she joined Kelly Price onstage for a quick, rough, impromptu performance at a pre-Grammys party.
I will say I liked the final scene. Too many people think of “I Will Always Love You” as a romantic love song (it kills me when I hear it played at weddings). It’s not. It’s a bittersweet love song about letting go. Showing Whitney onstage, in the spotlight, singing her signature song—which happens to be one of the most popular songs of all time—while Bobby stands on the sidelines really sums up most of their relationship for me. True, there’s no resolution—and you’re right, there wasn’t time for one—but I think it did manage to end on a particularly heartbreaking note. What if she’d left him then? What if they took those lyrics to heart and realized they weren’t in a healthy relationship, and that even though there was love there, they were slowly destroying each other? How much differently could her story have turned out then? I think that has always been the underlying theme when discussing the downfall of Whitney, both the person and the brand. Even if Bobby wasn’t the one who introduced her to drugs, the two of them together didn’t foster an environment that would allow for a wholesome recovery for either.
ARIANA: I found that final scene fairly emotional too, and also strangely sweet. Had it not been followed by text telling us that they continued to stay together for another decade, I would have interpreted the scene as a goodbye between the two. But knowing that their relationship soldiered on made it seem like a moment of hope, however bittersweet. And the fact that I felt that way makes me feel manipulated—because I was manipulated.
This Bobby Brown redemption tour, as you so perfectly dubbed it, worked its magic on me (if only for a few minutes). By the end, here I was thinking, “You two lovely lovebirds can make it through!” And in that way, Angela Bassett accomplished what she wanted to: She told a love story. But it feels so wrong to root for them when we know how much more there is to the story, and when—as we’ve established—the bias in favor of Bobby in this film is so obvious.
This is the movie you watch if you’re okay with a simplified, romanticized look at what some would consider a disastrous relationship and not if you want to relive Whitney’s heyday or learn more about the legendary singer—until someone else makes a movie more Whitney-focused and less Bobby-centric, YouTube will probably be the best option for that.