This article contains major spoilers.
You know that haunting feeling you have after watching Roots, 12 Years a Slave, Amistad or any other slave-based movie—that feeling of, it’s over but order was never restored? It’s over but I still want to hit my ugly cry. It’s over but pain is still clinging to the air like wet, red Georgia clay on the sole of a shoe. Welp, there you have Whitney, the Kevin Macdonald-directed documentary about the late, eternally great Whitney Houston.
A chronicle of the singer’s life from childhood to death, Whitney is tragic, to say the least, at every turn. From molestation and marriage woes, to a less-than-stellar parenting record and a disturbing relationship with drugs dating back to her teenage years, the film is ground zero of the heartbreak hotel and the perfect, much needed explanation of Houston’s untimely (but after watching Whitney, inarguably timely) death.
Let’s start at the top. The film opens with the most eerie rendition of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” you’ll ever hear (I’ve actually had no inclination to dance with anyone since that moment). Musically stripped with standalone vocals laced with an echo, all set against a disruptive montage of headlines and performance clips showing Whitney at her best and worst, clearly the atmosphere is being set for us all to leave the theater heavier than how we came. As the song plays, we hear the singer recount a dream where she is chased by the devil but never caught. Off-putting, right? Well wait, there’s more.
The thing that makes Whitney such a heartbreak to watch is that although some of Houston’s pain was self-induced, the singer’s deepest hurt was brought on by those closest to her. Case in point—her brothers, Gary and Michael, who introduced her to cocaine as a teenager and her father and former manager, John Russell Houston, who embezzled money from his own daughter then sued her for $100 million.
There’s also the nameless uncle who allegedly gifted her a vial of cocaine for her 16th birthday. Great job, Unc. And then there’s Houston’s cousin, Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne Warwick), who molested both Houston and her brother Gary when they were children. Taking all of this into account, the singer never really had a fair shot at a decent life. I mean, how much hurt can a single body hold before it erupts? Throw fame, access and the affordability to feed virtually any of her vices, confusion with her sexual identity, financial woes and Bobby Brown being Bobby Brown into the mix, and we have the makings of a public train wreck.
You know it was bad if Whitney Houston turned to Michael Jackson for help. No shade to the King of Pop, but Mike had his own issues and addictions, and unfortunately, he would not be the first or tenth person on my list to come fix my or anyone else’s life.
Oh, and remember how we all laughed and slapped knees at the Whitney-inspired SNL skits, categorized her tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown as “hood love” and turned the name of the greatest singer to ever grace a microphone into a joke? Well, we’re all jerks. Behind the headlines, every cracked note, unkempt hair and cigarettes, was a woman-turned-addict who desperately needed help.
At its best, Whitney humanizes the headlines and is a reminder that while the troubles celebrities experience may seem sparse in comparison to our car notes and baby daddy woes, these are people dealing with highstake issues, and I’m sure the public stares, Pusha T album covers and social media memes don’t help to ease anything.
And while the story of Houston is an altar call service in its own right, the real tragedy of the movie and the darkest blotch in the singer’s legacy is that of her daughter Bobbi Kristina. Here is where the church ushers get into position with the tissues. Born to an alcoholic father and a drug-addicted mother, the child never had a chance. Ever. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. During Bobbi Kristina’s most transformative years, her parents were strung out, wilding out and, unfortunately, too consumed with their own demons to properly raise a child. Reading about it in the National Enquirer is one thing, but hearing relatives admit that Bobbi Kristina was raised in a house of horrors where her father drew devils on the walls in his leisure time, well, that’s another.
I can’t lie, this movie is sad AF. Titantic, plus the ending of Boyz in the Hood, with a side of any scene from 12 Years a Slave type of sad. It’s not the type of sadness you can shake off and go about your day. I left this film feeling heavy, disturbed, unsettled and sympathetic for the little girl who never found her healing in the earthly sense. Fast forward two weeks after watching Whitney and those feelings are still the same.
But there is a silver lining. In the midst of the sadness, we’re reminded that despite the tabloids, that wretched Diane Sawyer interview and cringeworthy performance footage, Whitney Houston was and will always be the undisputed greatest singer of all time. For every low in the film, there is a high, and that high is the voice. The voice that brought a country to tears when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. The voice that made us forget “I Will Always Love You” was a remake of a Dolly Parton song because the remake mushed every memory of the original. The voice that would put any current singer to shame and make them go back and try again another day if Whitney even thought about singing a note. The voice that will give you fresh chills as you watch vintage performances and listen to songs recorded some 10, 15 and 20 years ago.
I’m sure your cousin has a great voice, and yes, that one soprano on the praise and worship team can sang for real, but on every singer’s best day, there will never, ever, eva be another voice that will come close to Whitney Houston. Please don’t try to debate this and please go see this movie. Also, please bring tissues and please identify your nearest happy place because you’re going to need it when it’s all said and done. #RIHWhitney