Of all the telling moments in the new Whitney Houston documentary Whitney — and there are many — the most revealing may be a small anecdote from Debra Martin Chase, the producer of The Preacher’s Wife and the 2012 remake of Sparkle.
Houston, the woman everyone seemed to like and no one really seemed to know, had a special kinship with Michael Jackson. It went far deeper than your usual show business fare, in which a couple of Big Names have a conversation over one drink at a party and suddenly and conveniently they’re best friends. No, Whitney and Michael shared a similar, familiar, specific isolation — one that allowed the two of them to visit with each other and simply sit in silent communion, each wordlessly in tune with what the other was experiencing.
The two biggest black pop stars of the ’80s were each in possession of generation-defining voices that carried far beyond the time limits typically expected of such acts. They could be charming scene-stealers, the type who just naturally drew a spotlight regardless of whether they meant to. But together, in casual privacy, they were just two people aware of what they’d relinquished to become mononyms, to float above the country that birthed them, a couple of Icaruses doomed by their parents’ hubris and their country’s hatred.
There is a steep price to pay for the racial malleability required for a little girl from Newark, New Jersey, whom everyone called Nippy to become Whitney Houston. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary shows us how we all stood by and watched her pay it.
One of the most prevailing themes of black American life, art and survival is that of double consciousness. It is unnaturally natural. It is the automatic, instinctual adjustments of everyday black Americans that turn us into perpetual politicians, always reading a room, internal blackness meter at the ready. It is, in some sense, the problem we all live with, using some combination of cultural antennae and game theory to suss out just how much of our true self is acceptable in any given situation. It is exhausting, and yet most of us have developed the stamina for it without much thought. But Whitney illustrates the toll of continuously reconciling dual identities on a grand scale, and the unique challenge it posed for a black woman who became a modern pop icon.
In the most basic sense, there was Whitney Houston, the person who was birthed the first time she ever stepped in for her mother’s club act. Whitney Houston was the professional singer, the woman who needed little more than a microphone and a stage to hold the world in her hand. Houston is still often underestimated as a musician. She wasn’t a songwriter or a producer. Her entire career was spent belting out lyrics composed by other people. But Houston had The Voice. It wasn’t just a matter of the technical prowess encompassed by phrases such as “perfect pitch.” In Houston’s hands, her voice became an interpretive tool, one over which she demonstrated exquisite control. Such was the power of Houston’s instrument that she could take a perfectly written song by Dolly Parton and not just appropriate it for her own devices but also convince anyone who heard her sing it that it was hers from the start.
Whitney Houston was a good, sweet, innocent girl from East Orange, New Jersey, who had an idyllic childhood and two loving parents. Whitney Houston dated men such as Eddie Murphy, Brad Johnson, and Randall Cunningham. She was the crown jewel of Clive Davis and Arista Records. Whitney Houston was the American dream with a deep tan. Whitney Houston was palatable for the likes of MTV and the cover of Seventeen. The success of her first album allowed Houston to pay her father, John, a salary of $500,000 a year after he spent years as a public servant cobbling together, through means both legitimate and not, $500 per week. She had “class,” as her mother, Cissy, so often liked to remind her.
Nippy, on the other hand, was black — not the comforting, soothing sort that white people so often imply when they conscientiously use the phrase “African-American.”
Oh, no. No, no, no. Nippy was B-L-A-C-K BLACK. Even her nickname was black — how many “African-Americans” do you know who answer to the name Nippy? Ain’t nothin’ bourgie about no Nippy.
Nippy was from Newark — post-riot, pre-Cory Booker Newark. Nippy was teased, bullied, ostracized by her own people ‘cause she was light-skinned and her family treated her like a princess. Nippy was molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick. Nippy loved her best friend and confidant Robyn Crawford. Nippy was bisexual.
Whitney Houston used cocaine. Nippy was addicted to crack. And because these two people were actually one, they both showed up during a disastrous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC in which they proclaimed that “crack is wack.”
Whitney Houston was booed at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards. Nippy used the opportunity at the same show to flirt with Bobby Brown.
Nippy married Bobby, then constantly made concessions to the impositions Whitney Houston made on his ego. (This included agreeing to change the name of her production company, formed after the monumental success of The Bodyguard, from Houston Productions to Brownhouse Productions.)
Whitney Houston would bring her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, onstage and sing to her at her concerts. Nippy was neglectful.
There is perhaps the one moment when Nippy and Whitney Houston were publicly reconciled: Houston’s triumphant performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Inspired by Marvin Gaye’s 1983 performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, Houston wanted to pull off something similar. Her musical director slowed the tempo of the anthem and wrote an arrangement that changed the time signature from a ¾ waltz (1-2-3, 1-2-3) to a standard 4/4, allowing Houston a little more room between her notes. In between the notes was Nippy, and everyone just like her. She hadn’t yet hit 30. Houston was only six years removed from the release of her debut album when she made her historic performance at the Super Bowl. She wasn’t yet a movie star. In 1991, Houston was big, but she wasn’t Bodyguard big, not yet. She still had a bit of calm, a bit of space to be herself. It just didn’t last. By the time Whitney Houston and Nippy sat down with Sawyer, she’d been carrying the two of them around for more than a decade.
Something had to give.
In an essay for All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, literary scholar Mary Helen Washington wrote about an interview she had with Alice Walker.
“She outlined a personal historical view of Black women: she sees the experiences of Black women as a series of movements from a woman totally victimized by society and by men to a growing, developing woman whose consciousness allows her to have some control over her life,” Washington wrote.
The first movement, suspension, Washington wrote, was characterized by black women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mules of the world, as Zora Neale Hurston described them. Assimilated women came a generation later. Wrote Washington: “The women in the second cycle are also victims, not of physical violence, but a kind of psychic violence that alienates them from their own roots and cuts them off from real contact with their own people and also from a part of themselves.” The last movement was of emergent black women, post-civil rights movement, post-Black Power, who had options.
“I have this theory that Black women in the Fifties, in the Forties — the late Forties and early Fifties — got away from their roots much more than they will probably ever do again, because that was the time of greatest striving to get into White Society and to erase all the backgrounds of poverty,” Walker told Washington of assimilated women. “It was a time when you could be the exception, could be The One, and my sister was The One. But I think she’s not unique — so many, many Black families have a daughter or a sister who was the one who escaped because, you see, that was what was set up for her; she was going to be the one who escaped …”
Walker could have just as easily been talking about Houston as she was her own sister, even if, at first glance, the era seems off. Houston was trapped in a state of assimilation inherited from her mother. Cissy Houston, who was born in 1933, came into her prime in the early ’50s. She strived as a backup singer for Aretha Franklin, as a failed solo vocalist. And so, even though Houston was born in 1963, she ended up living Cissy’s assimilation cycle. Except it wasn’t just Cissy. It was Cissy and Franklin (her godmother) and Dionne Warwick (her cousin) and Dee Dee Warwick (another cousin) and Leontyne Price (yet another cousin) too. It was an entire generation of singers who reached their creative ceilings. Whitney was the hammer for all of them. She was part cudgel, part Trojan horse too, a clapback to segregated radio and payola and silly beauty standards that said a nose was too wide or a butt too fat or a complexion just too dark to be worth marketing to white people. She could sneak through the cracks of a tilted so-called meritocracy. Houston was the favored girl of the family. Her brothers and her father doted on her, while Cissy prepared her to soar out of Newark in a way that she could not.
Joe Jackson, the patriarch who created the Jackson 5, charted a similar path for his children, especially Michael. Born in 1928, he and Cissy followed parallel trajectories, arriving as infants into a country that restricted where they could live, what they could learn, and who they could choose to represent and lead them. So they trained their children to be escape artists.
Cissy was the astute observer of the music business. It was she, more so than Davis, who possessed the cunning needed to make Houston a star. She took Houston to uncharted territory, and then what? There was no Whitney Houston before Whitney Houston. And for that she paid a terrific price: As long as she was in the public eye, she had to put Nippy in storage. And sometimes Nippy stayed in storage for so long, others thought she’d vanquished her entirely. Whatever you might have thought of Al Sharpton, he was a self-appointed spokesperson for black people. And Al Sharpton said Whitney was actually “Whiteney.”
It wasn’t just that Houston was black in a country that wanted to embrace her so long as she didn’t do too much to remind it of her blackness. Houston had to walk the tightrope that bedevils and ultimately dooms so many female pop stars, with madonna on one side and whore on the other. Female pop stars — especially young ingenues like the emergent Whitney, who released her self-titled debut album in 1985 at age 21 — must be sexy, but not slutty. Knowledgeable, but not experienced. Wholesome, but also desirable, a blank slate onto which men can project their desires and kinks and fantasies. It’s an unreasonable ask to make of perfectly healthy young women — and a disastrous one for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Macdonald’s last documentary was Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang, a film that centered on following a Chinese firework artist as he creates something that will connect Earth with the heavens. It is a story of repeated efforts to birth something new and breathtaking and profound into existence. Its narrative arc can’t help but bend toward triumph.
Whitney, on the other hand, required an entirely different set of intellectual muscles. In Whitney, Macdonald becomes an investigator unraveling a death that took place before our very eyes, over a series of decades, while we watched and laughed. One of the most twisted, painful things to realize while watching Whitney is not just how the accumulated callousness of white supremacy warped and twisted Houston’s life before she’d ever been born. It’s how it blamed her for not being better able to survive it.
Both Jackson and Houston were subjected to public displays of cruelty in the form of animated sitcoms. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, gleefully mocked Jackson, while, in the hands of Seth MacFarlane, Houston became a minstrel-for-hire to be compensated with crack.
Our justifications for this are predictable enough: They’re public figures, they’re rich, they’re adults. But both Jackson and Houston became meal tickets and micro-economies before reaching adulthood. This is not to say that neither Houston nor Jackson was beyond reproach but rather that satire based on their lives rarely bothered to engage with more complex realities behind them. White supremacy demanded that black pop stars of their era erase all but the most cursory indicators of blackness. Fine, you can be America’s sweetheart, so long as you remain publicly apolitical and perform as an anodyne, brown-colored cipher, the kind that doesn’t wear Black Panther berets at the Super Bowl or kneel during the national anthem. We are the world. We are the children. That’s it.
White supremacist capitalism created the situation that required Jackson and Houston to be brands instead of people. The wealth they amassed became the closest thing their families would ever get to anything resembling reparations. They’re the folks in this Atlantic article, just operating on a far grander scale. In the public imagination, Cissy and Joe become monstrous stage parents while Mama Rose Hovick was allowed a measure of complex, pitiable humanity. In a way, Whitney is the Houstons’ Gypsy. MacDonald only agreed to make Whitney with a guarantee of editorial independence. The Houstons agreed to give him complete control over the final cut, whether they liked it or not. They were allowed limited opportunities to give notes and fact-check, but little else.
In return, Macdonald delivered a portrait of humans, not all good, not all bad, but a family that tried to do the best it could with what it had. Houston’s seemingly effortless ability to code-switch was a double-edged sword. It was bound to cut her down at some point.
This is America, same as it always was. Houston’s life and downfall is an example of what happens when talent rises from accumulated trauma and the generations of striving required to financially vault away from it. She is the product of the decisions made by parents born to a country that refused to fully acknowledge that this land was their land, and so it went for generations and generations back. There is no outrunning deep, personal, spiritual and historical wounds. There is only knowledge and the hope that it informs a better future.
Whitney opens in theaters Friday.