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Heather Riley reviews Whitney
The new documentary about the late Whitney Houston is one of the saddest things that I have seen for a long time.
How did a girl raised in a loving family and a Christian home lose herself to addictions that in the end would kill her?
One answer might be that the appearance of a loving Christian home was a far cry from the reality of what was happening behind closed doors. The young Whitney was exposed to sex, drugs and racial prejudice before she reached her teens. Simultaneously she was expected to perform at church.
The documentary claims that her mother Cissy "made and groomed her". She lived in her mother’s shadow and was dominated by her, often fierce, love. Cissy was an extraordinary singer who taught Whitney everything she knew and shared the same gift – the film implied that Cissy appeared to recognise that her moment had passed. All energy was then directed to daughter Whitney who would realise Cissy’s ambitions.
The early footage of the star singing in church is incredible; her voice was so pure and strong. The songs were worship songs about God’s love. But Whitney never seemed to find this love for herself.
Cracks started to appear long before fame came into the picture. One of her brothers, who would later educate her about graduating to hard drugs, identified her as having a type of ‘Double Consciousness’ . She was already conflicted between the ‘church Whitney’ and the real woman with appetites not appropriate for church, including conflict around her sexual identity. She wanted to marry and have a child, but the reality was that her most meaningful, committed and loving relationship was with a woman.
She was searching. There was a gripping scene where she explains that the singer ‘Whitney’ cannot make contact with the girl ‘Whitney’. This footage was taken at the end of her career as she reflected back on how controlled her image and public life had been, alluding to the secrets held by the young ‘pre fame’ Whitney about abuse within her home that was covered up for a supposed greater good. She was never allowed to express her grief or start to heal.
Under the spotlight her life spiraled out of control - no amount of wealth or success brought comfort. She had a complex family and a life that was privileged and tortured in equal measure.
Whitney is a well-crafted documentary. The music is incredible and it’s a deeply emotional portrayal of a complicated and conflicted woman who is some ways, we can all relate to. We each have an inner life and a public persona – we all need to be honest about the gaps between that and work towards a more integrated and whole sense of self.
Heather Riley is a content administrator at Premier
Whitney is in selected UK cinemas now
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