It’s peculiar that Lifetime once branded itself as “television for women” when its programs, particularly its celebrity biopics, are only concerned with the men in their subjects’ lives. Brittany Murphy, Aaliyah, and Whitney Houston were all immensely talented women whose lives were ripe with interesting tales and themes that could be explored on screen, yet Lifetime’s biopics tend to focus not on their work or struggles but on their romantic relationships. The most egregious example is last year’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, which largely ignored Aaliyah’s musical accomplishments in favor of tackling her “love story” with R. Kelly, and then with Damon Dash, even ending with an emphasis on Dash rather than on Aaliyah’s death. Lifetime’s latest entry in its “male-dominated biopics about women” genre is Whitney, which premieres tomorrow night and unfortunately — though certainly not unsurprisingly — follows the same infuriating and disrespectful format as the network’s previous movies about iconic women.
Despite the title, Whitney focuses less on Whitney Houston than on Bobby Brown and their tumultuous, abusive, and drug-fueled relationship. The inanity of the movie, which was directed by Angela Bassett, becomes disgustingly clear just a few minutes in, as Whitney (Yaya DaCosta) attends the Soul Train Awards and watches Bobby (Arlen Escapeta). The biggest problem with Whitney — that it just doesn’t seem to give a shit about its heroine except in the context of the man she married — is neatly illustrated by the fact that the movie provides us with an extended Bobby Brown performance before a Whitney one.
There is nothing here about Whitney’s pre-Bobby career, save for a mention that she sold a couple of records, because who cares about that! Bobby’s performing! The movie essentially begins with the beginning of their relationship and, much as Princess of R&B painted R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s relationship as a fairy tale romance, emphasizes how romantic Bobby was. She wanted to keep it casual; he wanted to marry her immediately (“I love you too much,” he says at one point). When Whitney says she misses him, Bobby immediately drives four hours from Boston to see her. There are romanticized sex scenes (or as romanticized as Lifetime can show, and Bassett can direct) that end with Bobby bounding around the kitchen making breakfast the next morning. “I make love and I make eggs,” he boasts. Later he informs her, “You are my baby, my woman, my heart,” before a celebratory wedding scene that will make your stomach turn — presumably not the intended effect.
Throughout the courtship, the marriage, and the honeymoon phase, Whitney’s career is booming, but the movie doesn’t show any of this. When Whitney finally mentions Whitney’s hugely successful role in The Bodyguard, it happens during a business meeting with Bobby. Whitney is nowhere to be found. It’s up to Bobby to convince Whitney to go on tour to help promote the soundtrack, and he does so very reluctantly.
At long last, we get a long performance sequence that’s actually pretty great, especially by Lifetime’s usual standards. To her credit, Yaya DaCosta makes a fine Whitney Houston and throws herself completely into the role. She is all-in, but the movie rarely gives her a chance to shine, because it rarely puts Whitney in the spotlight. She’s great in the montage of Whitney singing “I’m Every Woman” on various tour dates while wearing various (enviable) costumes. Then, of course, the movie ends with Whitney bringing out Bobby to perform, because this can never just be Whitney’s moment.
We’re back to Bobby as he watches Whitney dance with someone in the club, watches the crowd adore her. For much of the movie, he sits in the corner and drinks and sulks and does drugs (she does her fair share, too) and cheats and eventually whines to a friend, “I ain’t hardly written anything since I’ve been with her.” His friend kindly offers him some cocaine. It’s so frustrating to tune in to a movie about Whitney Houston and barely see her.
Often, Whitney hints at Bobby’s increasing jealousy regarding his wife and her talent, but it never gets into the deplorable things that he did to her as a result. It’s a gross omission, one that implies that Lifetime prefers to put Bobby Brown (and his “love” for her) above Whitney Houston. Whitney casually waves away their abusive relationship — the details of which are well known: He spat on her, slapped her, and once had 911 called on him, resulting in being charged with misdemeanor battery — and instead just includes one scene of them fighting, where she frustratingly pounds at his chest and he basically attempts to hug her into submission.
The film ends abruptly — sorry, but this movie doesn’t even deserve spoiler warnings — as Whitney stands on stage singing “I Will Always Love You.” This, if nothing else, should be entirely Whitney Houston’s Moment, but it’s like the camera is struggling to focus on Bobby, often cutting to him standing on the side of the stage watching her. Then it ends with title cards: about her divorce, some record-sales stats, and oh yeah — she died. It’s the first time Whitney makes any reference to her death; it doesn’t show it on screen, it doesn’t explain how or when she died, just that she did. It’s more baffling than anything else.
It makes total sense that Lifetime made Whitney. The network loves these stories about women, especially famous women, who they can exploit — especially if their man has a strong narrative as well. And this is what is most exasperating about Lifetime: There are already so many — too many — movies, television shows, and entire networks that cater solely to men and aim to tell their stories. There are far fewer that are interested in women’s narratives (and even less that extend that interest to women of color).
Lifetime, which is for women, has the distinct and rare opportunity to only tell women’s stories. Instead, they choose to obsess over the men: the man who stuck with Whitney, the man who had a quickie marriage to Aaliyah, the man who saved Brittany Murphy (and that’s not even getting into all of its ridiculous original, overwrought movies about scorned women and their male saviors). Whitney is hellbent on keeping Whitney Houston out of the spotlight in her own movie, and it’s depressing that Lifetime sees no problem with this.