Whitney Houston has been a silent (or rather, boisterous because of her musical abilities) member of my family for many years. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” was my mother’s fighting song for those gloomier days. I grew up singing “Million Dollar Bill,” in the kitchen and using “Greatest Love of All” as my karaoke song. My sister would paint in her sketchbook for hours, replaying “How Will I Know” and the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the singer dressed in all white and red will never leave my list of ‘Recently Watched.’ I even mimic the way her hands come up as she clings to her last high note. She was a great mirage of what it meant to be a Black woman, as she embodied both the privileges and hardships of being such.
In the past, films have characterized Whitney as a victim in her own life. Her talent was so abundant and so immensely bright that anyone who challenged her personally was an automatic iceberg looking to sink her soaring ship. So when I watched the trailer for I Wanna Dance with Somebodythe biopic of Whitney’s life released in December 2022, I was intrigued by how the film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, was looking to redirect her story.
Known as “The Voice” and “Pop’s Princess”, these monikers exemplified the autonomy Whitney seemingly wasn’t allowed to have as a human being. Once her gifts were put on display, the privacy, empathy and understanding to which she was indebted were continuously exchanged for compliments, fame and glory.
I was initially taken back at the angle Lemmons seemed to use to approach the story. A moment I held dear to me, both on-screen and in the trailer, was during a radio interview where Whitney (Naomi Ackie) was accused of not being Black enough. And as her rebuttal, she said: “Maybe I’m not obedient enough?” Maybe I’m not fearful enough?” This wasn’t the Whitney Houston that was spoken about in previous years—a woman who lacked the ability to make her own decisions, a submissive artist gone too soon because she let faith and drugs dictate the timeline of her life—this was the Whitney Houston I remembered learning about when I was younger; the artist and businesswoman that did make her own demands and didn’t back down from the narratives being painted about her. From there, I knew Lemmons’ intention for this story was to showcase an unapologetic angle of the singer’s life and I was all aboard.
In I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the sequences that brought me the most joy were Whitney’s performances. It felt like an open secret, that even if her life continued to remain one unsolvable mystery, a certifiable fact was that she loved to sing. Lemmons did an impeccable job of embodying those moments of glee through her music. From the opening scene which foreshadowed her 1994 American Music Awards performance to the creation of the “How Will I Know” video; the opening performance for Davis in her teenage years and struts across the stages of her tour with “I Am Every Woman” on her tongue.
As life began to crash down, Whitney’s talent began to be the threshold of everyone else’s survival. The one thing that was supposed to be her peace revealed itself as the monster.
These were sequences that emphasized how she didn’t just change the music industry, she perfected it. She challenged what music could be, especially what it could be as a Black musician. The film was able to answer the question that, regardless of whichever genre Whitney was singing in, it didn’t take away her vocal abilities and it didn’t take away her Blackness while doing so.
One scene that embodied this perfectly was when Whitney stood in Clive Davis’ (Stanley Tucci) office stating that she just wanted the best songwriters. Not songwriters of a certain race, gender, or genre. Just the best. Whitney lacked—and still does—the ability to be compared to other musicians because of how eclectic her sound could be. And not to mention how flawless she sounded. With these moments, I was appreciative to be able to hold onto these pinnacle points in music history that she gave.
Nevertheless, a stinging motif that came full circle in the film included Whitney’s naivety to believe that she would be able to float above the drama impacting her from all corners as long as she continued to sing. Even if she had to deny her sexuality, dress however the media wanted and take orders from her very particular father—if she could sing while doing it, everything would be OK. Yet, as life began to crash down, Whitney’s talent began to be the threshold of everyone else’s survival. The one thing that was supposed to be her peace revealed itself as the monster. The ugliness of what her life came to be, tours filled with hideaways of secret drug escapades and a roller coaster of a relationship with Bobby Brown began to replace what people initially knew her to be. The headlines of her as a “crack addict” became the definition of her Blackness.
Notably, Lemmons conveyed these uncomfortable and gut-wrenching moments with sensitivity and stillness. As much as folded dollar bills and powdery substances do make their way across the screen, Lemmons doesn’t reduce Whitney’s humanity to the account of the drugs she consumed.
Many opinions on this film were based on the pacing, cinematography, and overall writing of the film. I can admit that the first hour of the film felt jagged and rushed at times; hurtling through to get to the good parts. It was admirable to see the budding friendship and relationship of Whitney and Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), her assistant and future creative director, unfold but it was also cut short. By occasionally jumbling up the timeline via flashbacks, some later moments in Whitney’s life were misconstrued or contradicted, leaving the viewer confused as to where in time we were.
The film cheapened the timeline of Whitney and Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders)’s story, too, minimizing their love to one moment of their meeting at the Soul Train Awards to a last-minute engagement during a backseat make-out session and finally to Bobby’s involvement in Whitney’s strung-out behavior. It takes the microphone away from Whitney once again and echoes previous films by inferring that Bobby was not a positive force in the singer’s life at all. It’s an opinion we shouldn’t be able to make without her permission. Not to mention, the story of Whitney’s life is undoubtedly painful because of how it affected her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. The film glosses over the impact that her daughter received from her mother’s struggle and fails to admit how it played a part in the death of Bobbi Kristina (played by Bria Danielle Singleton)’s life, as well.
It is correct to say that Lemmons approach does come with a considerable amount of red flags. Yet, in a way, I understand his choices. The bitter truth of it all was that no one really knew Whitney. Everyone’s perception of her—not as a singer, but as a person—was different. Thus, the telling of her story is imperfect because she did not live a life that was constructively smooth sailing. Maybe this film does her justice by detailing how unsolvable her story is. Her death wasn’t just a pointed arrow to toxicity or drug use. Maybe the allegory of I Wanna Dance with Somebody was that the singer was shouting for someone to just understand her. To understand her battle as a Black and Queer woman. Or, as a devoted Christian. Or, as a daughter. A mother. A businesswoman. An addict. A person.
It’s difficult to pinpoint this film as either exceptional or exploitative, but another truth is that it’s difficult to write Whitney’s story because she’s not present to hold the pen. Yet, I appreciate the attempts Lemmons makes to correct those wrongs that were done to her in the past. I extend my gratitude to this film’s ability to capture all of her good and bad and I’m certainly appreciative to reunite with this lost loved one, of sorts.
The bitter truth of it all was that no one really knew Whitney. Everyone’s perception of her—not as a singer, but as a person—was different.
As the film alludes to her death in Ackie’s final moment as Whitney while preparing for one last haunting bath, Lemmons chooses not to keep this chapter open. Instead, it’s closed, returning us back to the stage where Whitney performs the medley arrangement of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “I Am Telling You, I Am Not Going,” and “I Have Nothing.” Goosebumps emerge onto the viewer’s skin as Whitney does the undoable. High notes that never fade and instead, vividly increase, each breath control incomparable.
It returns us to maybe the only thing Whitney Houston wanted us to know about her. An indisputable fact is that this woman could sing. So, if we never really know who she was behind closed doors, it doesn’t matter. As she’s given us the gift of remembrance; the ability to look back and see her sing again, and again. We just have to close our eyes and rewind the track. And with that, I have peace.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is out in cinemas now.
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