Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has interrogated the lives of plenty of icons in his time— actor Eric Campbell, Howard Hawks and Bob Marley, among many—or parlayed with still-living legends, following Mick Jagger around and creating an aptly titled film called A Brief History of Errol Morris. But rarely has he extracted such a black-and-white narrative from his subjects as bluntly as he does with Whitney, his talking head take on the life of Whitney Houston.
By now, many may have heard the revelation Macdonald was able to get in the 11th hour of production, more tragic than it is shocking, more fascinating than it is illuminating: Houston’s half-brother Gary confesses, in the film’s final moments, that they were molested as children by Dee Dee Warwick, their cousin and sister to Dionne Warwick. Though Macdonald has claimed the film was mostly done before anyone disclosed anything of that nature—giving it the aura of an open point of family shame—Whitney practically bends itself around the secret, orienting much of its biographical quest, to discover more than the “who” but the “why” of Houston’s descent into addiction and tabloid mania, toward that fact as resolution. The seeds of destruction were there from the beginning, the film seems to claim. If only.
From that moment, from that admission, the rest of the film spirals backwards, and Macdonald does nothing to stifle that centrifugal force. Spending so much of his film searching for reasons as to Houston’s fall from near-crystalline stardom, when hints of reasons come to light, we can’t help but assemble our own cause and effect allegations. In fact, he sets us up to do so. Whitney begins in Newark, chronicling the life of the Houstons, their mother Cissy (who was a backup singer for Aretha Franklin) deeply involved in the local church and their father John in charge of housing and urban development under Newark’s first African American mayor. So begins Macdonald’s reliance on historical stock footage as contextual anchor, placing the transparency of Whitney Houston’s story over the opaque bedrock of the 1967 Newark riots and then, as she grows up, the Vietnam War, the LA riots, the OJ Simpson trial, the Iraq Wars, the election of Barack Obama, and so on, implying with very little shame that the story (and subsequent tragedy) of Whitney Houston is the story (and subsequent tragedy) of America. It’s some Forrest Gump-ass shit.
Macdonald’s point appears to be that Houston’s story is representative of those of African Americans who grew up in urban centers in the ’60s and ’70s, but rarely does he make any salient connections between Houston’s life and the lives trapped within his Getty Images reels. Occasionally he pauses for reflection on how Whitney was bullied in school for her light skin, how her father’s influence (and implied exploitation of local government funding mechanisms) allowed her family to move to the suburbs in the wake of the Newark riots, how her mother’s touring found Whitney and her brothers babysat by relatives regularly, how her mother trained her incessantly in the church, in singing gospel, her shy but precocious prodigy of a beautiful daughter. Macdonald’s access to Whitney’s family, even walking slowly alongside Cissy through the church she used to frequent—where she likely carried on an affair with the pastor—as she talks in short bursts about her daughter, feels comprehensive, especially given the trove of personal footage he’s granted to show, replete with photos, camcorder recordings and family ephemera. One can’t imagine a film that could be more in depth while simultaneously covering, with breathtaking efficiency, the times in which a person like Whitney Houston could rise to superstardom.
Still, Macdonald goes too broad, and in that breadth the viewer can’t help but draw conclusions. Houston’s marriage to Bobby Brown serves as a catalyst for her public dysfunction with men, exacerbated by her father’s growing corruption as her manager. Meanwhile, the close relationship with her best friend Robyn Crawford fuels the toxic masculinity Macdonald lets drip all over her impressive career, to the point that the two men become the film’s villains, practically cartoonish in their shittiness. Brown especially, in every interview with Macdonald, reeks of delusion, unable despite all the death in his life to show any sense of contrition or retrospection for all the harm he caused and the lies he stuck to, his daughter Bobbi Kristina’s moorless life and pointless death a footnote to Whitney’s chapter on his ego and Whitney being “the best mom she knew how to be.” He refuses to talk about Whitney’s drug use. Macdonald doesn’t bother to ask Whitney’s mom about the men who abused her daughter.
The real shining light beamed throughout this doc is the steady stream of performances Macdonald presents, each a reminder of Houston’s blinding talent, at the very least a confirmation of just how flawless her debut still is, how impeccable she was from the start. For every overgeneralization Macdonald leans into or too-obvious historic parallels he lets fly, there is a corresponding performance, ebullient and transcendent—a purity Macdonald, and his viewers for that matter, can’t help but sour.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Release Date: July 6, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.