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Lifetime’s nuanced Whitney Houston biopic forces her to share the spotlight

Arlen Escarpeta, Yaya DaCosta
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Whitney, Lifetime’s Whitney Houston biopic, desperately needs a different title. That Whitney’s title is among its biggest flaws signifies its towering superiority over Lifetime’s last music biopic, Aaliyah: The Princess Of R&B, which counted as its biggest flaw the absence of the angel Gabriel’s blaring trumpet. The misleading title is no small matter though, baiting fans with the promise of a straightforward, rise-to-fame biopic Whitney barely resembles. Whitney And Bobby would scare away the late singer’s superfans, but it would at least accurately describe the product.

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Whitney is a two-hander from its opening frame, starring Yaya DaCosta as Houston and Arlen Escarpeta as Bobby Brown, whose influence on Houston’s life and legacy is such a source of controversy and debate as to place him in Yoko Ono’s rarefied air. The film is exclusively about Houston and Brown’s tumultuous relationship, which never feels appropriate given it wouldn’t exist if not for Houston’s death in 2012. In fact, though Houston’s legendary pipes earned her the nickname “The Voice,” Houston isn’t the first singing voice heard in Whitney. It’s Brown who gets the first performance, singing “Every Little Step” at the Soul Train Music Awards, the backdrop for Houston and Brown’s meet-cute. Whitney never pulls its focus away from them, beginning well after Houston’s early success and ending well before her death.

But while such a close examination of Houston and Brown’s courtship and marriage seems disrespectful, there’s a case to be made for director Angela Bassett’s treatment. Houston’s Bobby Brown period just so happens to overlap with the height of her professional career, specifically her starring role in 1992’s The Bodyguard and its boffo soundtrack. It’s also an unsurprising choice for Bassett’s directorial debut, given her breakthrough performance in What’s Love Got To Do With It, one among many music biopics with the unenviable task of adjudicating the degree to which an artist’s personal life and professional accomplishments intersected.

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While the wisdom of Whitney’s premise is debatable, Bassett’s execution is confident and thoughtful. It actually might be too thoughtful. Houston’s most ardent fans will be the film’s harshest critics because it not only drills down on Houston and Brown’s relationship, it refuses to conform to the popular good-girl-meets-bad-boy narrative surrounding the pair. In its most controversial choice, Whitney establishes early on that Houston had already started abusing cocaine by the time she started dating Brown, and not only was Brown not the catalyst for her drug use, she was the bad influence on him. Brown is shown declining Houston’s cocaine offer in one of their early meetings, and only later, after an inverse relationship develops between his success and hers, does Brown partake.

It’s a depiction of Houston and Brown’s relationship that will look to many as outright historical revisionism, or even character assassination. But the same elements bound to sour Houston’s fans on Whitney will work to the film’s advantage for viewers without their own interpretation of the events. The narrative of Houston, once America’s sweetheart, losing her way after becoming hypnotized by Brown’s gyrating hips has always been too neat and sterile to ring true. Whitney is packed with enough nuance it feels like a far more accurate account of the relationship. And while Houston was happy to demonize Brown to her advantage after her split, the film is arguably more sympathetic to Houston than the conventional wisdom she initially rejected, then later adopted. Houston doesn’t have to be infallible to be fondly remembered as a rare talent and a major loss.

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DaCosta’s performance is strong enough to deflect much of the criticism. Whitney is DaCosta’s first lead after parlaying a run for America’s Next Top Model into a string of small, auspicious appearances, and were it not a Lifetime biopic, Whitney would deservedly elevate her career. DaCosta fully commits to the performance, playing Houston with a level of grace that could have only grown out of genuine curiosity about the woman behind the mask. She never quite disappears into the role, performing Houston too forcefully to deflect attention off the performer and onto the performance. But in a sense, DaCosta’s effort actually makes her more effective because of who Houston was. Houston was as burdened and exhausted as is anyone by mononymous fame, but she also felt a little off anytime she wasn’t “on,” and DaCosta’s exaggerated performance reflects the blurring of Houston’s public and private selves.

The film’s take on Houston’s psychology provides a more sensible and flattering explanation for her relationship with Brown than the girl-gone-wild cliché. Houston wasn’t looking for a jerk, but as a pop star tasked with maintaining a perfectly manicured image, she was naturally drawn to Brown, who literally recorded a hit song about how he was going to do whatever he wanted regardless of public opinion. Whitney is deeply sympathetic to Brown, but also doesn’t seek to acquit him. Bassett is interested in Brown’s psychology too, and Escarpeta humanizes him, portraying Brown as a philanderer who tried to go straight, only to lapse into old coping mechanisms as his career evaporated.

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As was the case with Aaliyah’s family when Lifetime prepared to air that biopic, Houston’s estate denounced Whitney in a scathing statement, and understandably so. But once the premise is established, there’s far less to arouse suspicion in Whitney than there was in Aaliyah. It’s a surgical examination rather than a hatchet job, but neither is satisfying for those who would prefer the story wasn’t exhumed at all.

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