In a rare moment of quiet solitude in Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, the embattled Whitney Houston sits alone at an empty bar. Normally surrounded by a large family of handlers, not to mention an aggressive press apparatus, it’s strange to see the singer alone to herself. Softly, she sings a few notes of “Run to You” under her breath. Smoking her cigarette, we sense in her body language that being alone is as unnatural to her as it is in our perception of her.
Or maybe she just feels us watching her. At once, the disquieting layers of the punishing gauntlet of our unfeeling media circus become cuttingly human.
Whitney details the rise and fall of the star in familiar documentary fashion, from her humble beginnings in the shadow of her mother Cissy Houston to meteoric success and grossly mocked downfall. Macdonald massages out some unique insight by contextualizing the journey through her family dynamics, given both blessing and endorsement by Whitney’s inner circle. The interviews are bracing in their alternating frankness and evasion, creating a jarring effect designed to frustrate and engage in equal measure. While similar documentaries rest easy on their hagiographic portraiture, Whitney is a thornier beast that resists allowing the audience to draw easy conclusions.
Similarly, the film manages to avoid exploiting Houston further, as elements of Asif Kapadia’s Amy had to Amy Winehouse. Macdonald crafts a film that is difficult to reconcile when its subject never gets to speak for herself, a repeated unjust truth of her life that Macdonald details throughout the film. The film’s major revelation of childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of aunt Dee Dee Houston could have played as another salacious “gotcha!” against the artist, but is given the same compassionate eye as her other lingering battles. The film’s power is partly in how it threads the intersections of all that ailed Houston: abuse, addiction, and the systemic gendered and racist expectations placed upon black women.
As much about the ecosystem around her as the artist herself, the film’s most revealing aspect is how her environment facilitated her downfall as much as any of her self-destructive tendencies. Macdonald is heard challenging his interviewees on several points, in addition to providing opposing viewpoints. Moments become confessional, allowing some in the inner circle to own their role in Whitney’s collapse. Meanwhile those to avoid (particularly her music industry peers) are all the more telling and damning. Most heartbreaking are the ones who admit to feeling helpless against the immovable force of Houston’s buried pain.
Whitney is edited with keen social intelligence, interspersing social and cultural references to allow coded cues to further contextualize Houston’s story as emblematic of the time she lived. The film goes to lengths to posit Houston as doomed from the outset given the nature of the meat grinder music industry and the porous support system around her. Her otherworldly gifts and indefatigable, incisive spirit were never to be enough to save her; as Macdonald posits, we were lucky enough to have her when we did and unkind enough to participate in her undoing. It’s soul-crushing stuff and a distinctly American tragedy.
The only respite away from the film’s bleakness, as resembled in the portrait it gives of Whitney Houston’s life, is the music.