“My whole life: ‘She ain’t Black enough. She ain’t White enough.’ Well, how about she’s not obedient enough? How ‘bout she ain’t fearful enough?”
That’s Whitney Houston, played by Naomi Ackie, in Kasi Lemmons’ moving and elegant new biopic, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” She’s responding to criticisms that she’s out of touch with Black audiences – that she’s merely an ingénue whose image and sound have been carefully constructed by White music executives to do just one thing: people-please.
The scene is one of many in the movie neatly capturing the pressures the real-life Houston navigated as she walked a professional tightrope, trying to maintain her identity and integrity while meeting the demands of the record moguls who wanted her to tamp down her Blackness, behave “respectably” and quash even suggestions of queerness. The release of Lemmons’ film, which transports viewers to the world that begat the singer beloved as The Voice, offers us a chance to revisit her complex life and unmatched legacy with fresh eyes.
To do precisely that, I spoke with Emily Lordi, an English professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of the forthcoming book, “Holding Lightning: The Life, Loves and Art of Whitney Houston.”
During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discussed how racial expectations loomed over Houston, what the recent spate of new work about the singer says about the current pop-cultural landscape and why it’s a mistake to overlook the Black, feminist work she did in her post-“Bodyguard” years.
What are some of the challenges of producing a life narrative about Whitney, who reached fame on a planetary scale?
She’s a very complex figure – that would be one thing. Part of her gift in being able to reach so many people was that she had a kind of chameleonic way about her, which was how she was able to embody various personae in her songs – from the fun, confused girl of “How Will I Know” to the ultimate patriot in the national anthem. But I think that she assumed slightly different roles, depending on the people she was with and just her mood, like anybody else. It can be challenging to take in the multi-dimensionality of her as a person.
And then there’s her mastery as an artist. It can be hard to find the vocabulary to explain what made her such a great vocalist. I can ask people who have a better technical vocabulary than I do – for example, her longtime saxophonist, Kirk Whalum, or her protégée, Monica – what made her great. But I think that most of us regular people are hard-pressed to grasp the magnitude of her musical genius.
When she was younger, Whitney was portrayed as an all-American girl, as a pop princess. We see in the movie that there was this sense that she “belonged” to everybody. But this dynamic revealed lots about the country’s anxieties around race.
I think that there was a sense early on that there would have to be a kind of flattening of Whitney’s image in order to make her palatable as a Black crossover star. In her book, Robyn Crawford talks about how some people didn’t like the cover image Whitney preferred for her first record (1985) because it looked “too Black.”
And when you get to the cover for Whitney’s second album (1987), if you do a close reading of it, it’s just her on a vacant set. She’s obviously Black, but she’s got the weave at this point, and there’s nobody around. She’s youngish but not girlish. She’s sexy but not seductive. She looks prosperous but not rich. That, I’d argue, was the moment the label’s vision of Whitney, the American Everywoman, manifested most powerfully.
Then, we got 1990’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” The album showcases what I think is some of Whitney’s boldest work. She defies the sound that gave her superstardom; she embraces Black musical traditions: new jack swing, soul, gospel. The songs are more authoritative, more thematically mature. In other words, Whitney’s no longer a pop princess.
Right. On the third album cover, she’s in a seemingly urban environment. She’s on a motorcycle. She’s got her nickname, “Nippy,” on the license plate. By the ’90s, she’s beginning to take more control over her image and sound. I mean that literally, in the sense of becoming more of a producer on the records.
Another way to think about this shift from America’s sweetheart to a more Black-identified Whitney is to think about the move from her performance at the Super Bowl in 1991 during the Gulf War to her decision just three years later to perform in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. By 1994, she’s like a global ambassador, bringing her majority-Black band. People didn’t really do that. It was a landmark decision for her to do that. I’m not suggesting that she ever suppressed her Blackness. I’m saying that she became freer in expressing it, as she acquired more power over her sound and image.
Whitney Houston's life in pictures
We’re seeing an expanding collection of work, from feature films and documentaries to memoirs and critical texts, granting Whitney the sort of complexity she never received when she was alive. Why are we seeing a flowering of books and movies about her?
I think that there’s more general interest in “unruly women,” in trying to recover them, recuperate them, restore their complexity. We see that in a number of different instances. There’s the critical reappraisal of Nina Simone. There’s the interest in Britney Spears and pop icons who had been assumed to be vacant, unthinking ingénues. People now are realizing how much the tabloid industry and also just a racist, sexist culture mistreated these figures.
And that change is thanks to the feminist movement, thanks to Black Lives Matter, thanks to #MeToo. There are a number of movements that you can point to that I think have collectively generated a cultural energy around revisiting women who were maligned, undermined and underestimated.
What do people tend to miss in conversations about Whitney? As a Whitney superfan, I could come up with a litany of answers to this question …
Where do I even begin? For one, how hard she worked to develop her talent. When we talk about the lineage from which she comes, it can seem like she’s the natural beneficiary of the grooming of Cissy Houston, the family connection to Dionne Warwick, the mentorship of Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, whom Whitney knew through her mother. And that she was just born with it; she just had those pipes.
That’s all true. But I think that when we accent those factors, we neglect how hard she had to work to develop her talent, to keep going when she wanted to quit. There are lots of other things a person of Whitney’s beauty and style and intelligence and talent might’ve decided to do. I don’t think that it was inevitable that she’d become a singer, never mind a global superstar. Or if it was divinely ordained, she also had to work for it. She had to make choices. She and Robyn had to strategize. This is a long way of saying that one thing we miss is the part Whitney played in becoming herself.
The other thing that I want to focus on is the post-“Bodyguard” (1992) years, when she does some of her Blackest, most feminist work. And that period is treated as a total abyss. But she performed for Nelson Mandela. She acted in 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” and in 1996’s “The Preacher’s Wife.” She teamed up with people like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Faith Evans and Kelly Price on “My Love Is Your Love” (1998). She initiated projects that brought visibility to other Black women artists. 1997’s “Cinderella” is a great example of that. 2012’s “Sparkle” is a great example of that.
When we act as if everything after “The Bodyguard” is like a freefall toward her untimely demise, we miss so much of what she was intentionally doing for the culture – even in the middle of all her struggles.