Young, improbably beautiful, thin, big hair — and a talent so powerful and distinctive, even her greatest detractors couldn’t deny or dismiss it. Self-propelled to unprecedented stardom, then invited to join the top table, immediately becoming an A-lister in her own right. So far, so Hollywood cliché. But there’s one big, often unremarked difference with this particular story — its star is black.
If Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney Houston documentary was an audio production rather than a movie, it’s arguable that for much of it, audiences wouldn’t know its subject was an African-American woman. Director MacDonald is probably best known for Touching the Void, though he’s an Academy Award winner for One Day in September, a documentary about the 1972 Olympic Games kidnapping and siege and also directed another Oscar winner, the 2006 drama, The Last King of Scotland. Marley, his profile of reggae’s biggest star, was also highly regarded enough to garner award nominations.
His Whitney Houston documentary has been a critical success too, and it seems well on its way to being a commercial money-marker. Viewing it has left me with several troubling questions, however, and a somewhat bitter aftertaste.
First and perhaps most elusive for many people, is an aspect of the presentation that is wearingly familiar and no less unacceptable for this writer because of it. Several of the movie’s interviews with Whitney Houston’s relatives, friends, and other insiders feature the disembodied voice of the interviewer, who is, or sounds, white, bourgeois, and British.
I assume it’s MacDonald himself, though given the accent sounds decidedly English and he’s Glasgow born, I may be jumping to conclusions. What I do know is that this is a well-worn trope, that depicts black people, however unwittingly, as passive respondents to the empirical white gaze. I’m so over this trope that it affected my take on the whole enterprise.
Second, there is a curious absence at the heart (and start) of the movie that I find both perplexing and troubling. Whatever you think of Whitney Houston — and at this point, I should say, I was never a fan — but there is no doubt that she possessed an extraordinary, rare talent. In the 2017 documentary (entitled Whitney: Can I Be Me), this point was powerfully made by contributors whose credentials are impeccable. Perhaps MacDonald needed to distinguish his effort from its predecessor by placing less emphasis on this point, but omitting any reference to it altogether is a shocking failure, even to someone such as me who didn’t fall under the Whitney Houston spell.
Third, while the emphasis on Whitney Houston’s beginnings was pretty solid if somewhat lacking in detail, the prurient focus on her tragic end felt slow, icky and sensationalist. The pace of the movie’s start felt just about right, but as the tragedy builds, the subjective pace slows to what feels like a crawl through the detritus of her downfall.
Even the revelation about alleged sexual abuse by a female relative and the controversy about Whitney Houston’s sexuality feels like muckraking, despite the tentative, sensitive disclosure of the former and a public claim about the latter by Robin Crawford, Whitney’s fiercely loyal, long-term friend.
Whitney Houston’s blackness and the very public cultural battles she was obliged to contend with in black America, plus the sheer significance of the adoration she cultivated and maintained with white America, was noted, but in my considered view inadequately captured and scarcely reflected upon. This does her a huge disservice, matched by the emphasis on her record-breaking chart success without referring to her amazing skills and technique.
It took me a while to find a way into this review, which now I think about it, matches my response to the film itself. Coming just three short years after another high-profile documentary of the same name, this movie should have had something distinctive and vital to say. While there is undoubtedly value in the contributions from Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy, her brothers and others who knew her well, I don’t believe this alone to be enough.
Millions of Whitney Houston fans who crave anything to do with her will lap this up, even as many of them will feel queasy about doing so. Others who enjoy witnessing the mighty fall from grace will have themselves one helluva pity party with this ultimately tawdry tabloid take on a unique talent. But this writer and I suspect a great many others will see this as, at best, a wasted opportunity, and its 2015 predecessor’s lack of familial involvement is clearly made up for here.
Ever had the feeling you had to experience something, even though you rightly didn’t expect to enjoy the experience? Welcome to my world. Having seen this ugly take on a beautiful talent, in all senses of that word, I feel a little defiled. Whatever you think of her music, Whitney Houston deserves much better treatment than this vile documentary offered.
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