Anyone that watched Lifetime’s Whitney over the weekend probably asked the same question: Is this movie actually about Bobby Brown?
It isn’t so much that the film centers Brown, portrayed by Arlen Escarpeta, it’s that it sympathizes him to a degree not afforded its star. At the 13-minute mark in one of their first meetings, Whitney Houston does a bump of coke and offers some to Brown, who declines.
In fact, it takes nearly the entire film for Brown to take a hit. Fair enough; many have asserted that Houston’s drug use precedes Brown’s. But in the interim, Brown is characterized as a victim of his love for Houston, with insecurities surfacing around being cast as an accessory to her fame and referred to as “Mr. Houston.” The film attributes his struggles with Houston as a reason for his writer’s block and stalled career. He even, pleadingly, admits his love for her first, while Houston initially wants their affair to remain casual.
While Brown cheats on Houston often, he never raises a hand to her. In a film that isn’t shy about Showtime-quality sex scenes, explicit drug use and someone getting their brains blow out, it never depicts the violence that often characterized the Houston-Brown marriage. Escarpeta doesn’t possess the swagger, arrogance or natural bad boy quality of Bobby Brown to make his portrayal believable, and nothing in the script suggests he’s a risk to Whitney. When Cissy Houston asserts that Brown is “ghetto” in response to her daughter’s engagement announcement, the moment feels unearned. For anyone not already familiar with Bobby Brown, it may take a moment to realize Cissy is referring to the harmless nerd saddled with an unfortunate gumby wig.
The performances, production and script rise to levels that exceed recent Lifetime biopics based on the lives of Aaliyah, Brittany Murphy and the backstage antics of the Saved by The Bell cast. Yaya DaCosta has Houston’s mannerisms down — the shoulder shake, the point, the rolling neck, the manic excitement. The combination of a fully engaged DaCosta and a significant wig budget make for a fun, if not fully humanized, portrayal of Houston.
Producers were able to obtain a publishing license for Houston’s hits but were not able to use her voice. While Deborah Cox doesn’t sound exactly like Houston, she does a damn good job of approximating her power. She’s one of the few performers alive who can do this convincingly and is, perhaps, the most inspired casting of the film.
The film focuses on a snapshot of Whitney Houston’s life and union with Bobby Brown, from their first meeting at the Soul Train Awards to the birth of Bobbi Christina and his stint in rehab, where he outed her as an addict. The passion and playfulness that we all recognize as part of their relationship has been fully captured by director Angela Bassett, but the film is called Whitney, not Being Bobby Brown. If the Houston family and estate gets their wish for a big screen Whitney film, let’s hope the result depicts the star’s multitudes and the complexities of her marriage to Brown.