Revisiting the tragedy of 'Whitney' in the age of Beyoncé

Whitney Houston in 2000.

Whitney Houston in 2000. ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

Since her self-titled album in 2013, Beyoncé has steadily pushed back against the white audience that wishes to ignore her race, like the woman wondering “Beyoncé is black?” in the SNL skit, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”

But Bey has never before been as brash as she is on her most recent collaborative outing with Jay-Z, Everything is Love. “If you don’t know, now you know, nigga,” she sings on “Heard About Us,” while on “Black Effect,” she hollers about how she’s not just comfortable but is in fact her fullest, most vivacious self “on any Malcolm X Boulevard.”

Whitney Houston never had that chance. But Whitney is documentarian Kevin Macdonald's attempt to give Houston the voice those that follow her now enjoy, the strength—and the sane-black-woman-mega-popstar necessity—to say to her audience, to America, to the world, to her family, to her friends, to anyone, “Fuck you.”

Whitney is in many ways a straightforward documentary, beginning with a poignant, ominously foreshadowing quote from the tragic star, then chronologically detailing her life with montages that alternate between sprightly and sullen.

Macdonald, though, also makes the more pushy historian move, venturing to seek answers for the unanswerable. Why could a talent like Houston be led (as Macdonald's movie and seemingly the world agrees too in its selfishly prurient way) to hollow out her gifts and her whole fucking life with drugs and other disastrous choices, like Bobby Brown. (We also appear to all agree Bobby Kristina Brown never had a shot.)

Macdonald doesn't explicitly reach a conclusion. But he sets out a thesis of what Houston's incentives and disposition were during her ascent and what drove her to spiral downward, and places interviews strategically along the way to confirm his claims.

Each hit Houston took, in Macdonald’s view, was because she could not tell her dad or mom to shut the fuck up, or her brothers to fuck off, or her fans (white and black) to sit and spin if they had a problem with her bisexuality, with her taste for cruising Madison Ave for pink dick, with the way she and explored her new life of endless possibilities, whether making out with both Kevin Costner or some hood knucklehead who reminded her of her formative, familiar days in Newark.

Whitney marrying Brown was her way of screaming "I'm good on any Malcolm X Boulevard." But she couldn't admit that, so she tried to package her innermost desires in the most publicly appealing way, while curbing her inner objections with cocaine. To please her black base, she chose a figure of black braggadocio. Then she married him and attempted to make an honest, presentable family for her white fans.

Maybe Houston wanted those things for herself anyway. Who knows? After giving so much of herself and her art to us, and to her family and friends, splintering herself in so many ways to please so many people, there was no telling. There was no mechanism for Whitney to express what she was or what exactly she wanted. There were only public compromises and private consequences that became public embarrassments, like the photograph from her drug-disaster of a bathroom, which found recent life as the album art for Pusha T's album Daytona.

Kanye West reportedly spent $85,000 for the rights to the photo, and many found his use of it distasteful. But Ye, like Macdonald, wants us to look at what our judgments and demands actually do to people. Compromise from a talent like Houston, as we all know, and as Macdonald painfully reminds us, is ugly and heartbreaking.

Houston's voice, as Arista Records founder Clive Davis says in the movie, gave meaning to her songs that even their composers were unaware of. When Houston sang the national anthem, she made a claim of universal ownership to American ideals and pride, enriching the song for every non-white, every non-male who heard her. Her arresting voice and knowing soulfulness gave pop a more grounded texture while also pushing it to its wildest, most glittering extremes.

And yet, she also smoked crack rock instead of telling Brown to fuck off and get over his petty jealousy. That’s Macdonald’s conjecture, at least, and i’ts among his more logical, convincing assumptions about Houston's intimate life.

America's greatest voice in a generation (or a century) (or ever) couldn't muster up a hearty “fuck you.” Houston, like Nina Simone, and many others before and since, succumbed to the undue

pressures black women face in the spotlight. Even now, Serena Williams and Beyoncé are never going to stop hearing their share from shook people that look like Maria Sharapova or from fuckboys quaking in their Timbs. Whitney is a sad testament to the need for them to scream back, “Fuck you.”

And, for future reference, if you don't know, know you know.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Now open, Lagoon Cinema