Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody review – a fleeting glimpse of queer black joy
I Wanna Dance with Somebody charts the life of global superstar Whitney Houston in an epic narrative of talent and struggle. The film lays bare the complexities of her rise and life in the spotlight, including toxic relationships with her parents, substance use and her husband Bobby Brown.
It also depicts Houston’s intimate friendship – and romance – with her early girlfriend, assistant and creative director, Robyn Crawford.
Although Houston’s relationship with Crawford has been public knowledge for some time, biopics of queer musicians from Cole Porter (Night and Day, 1946 and De-Lovely, 2004) to Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018) have dealt with their romantic and sexual histories with caution, erasure and sometimes, censorship.
First comes love
The film opens with Crawford (Nafessa Williams) chatting up Houston (Naomi Ackie), after spotting her listening to music in a square. Houston is around 20 years old, still unsigned and singing backup for her mother, Cissy Houston, at Sweetwater’s Club in New York.
They connect as they share their love of basketball and music and a montage reveals the marital disagreements between Houston’s parents, which led her to move in with Crawford.
After she is signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) in April 1983, Houston wants to give Crawford an all-access role in her professional life. Her father (who is overseeing her business arrangements) sets the condition that Houston must be seen openly dating men.
John Houston (Clarke Peters) suspects that Houston and Crawford’s relationship is not platonic and was aware that gossip magazines are beginning to notice their closeness. He insists it will harm her success if it were even implied that Houston is romantically interested in women.
Shortly after, Houston returns to home and tells Crawford that she has slept with singer Jermaine Jackson, leading to their first big fight. Houston is clear that she loves Crawford but is also attracted to men and craves the security she thinks a male-female relationship (including marriage and children) will offer her.
Then comes marriage
Crawford is largely present in I Wanna Dance With Somebody’s chronicling of Houston’s life, as she manages the singer’s day-to-day and helps her to navigate the manipulation she encounters. However, there is fleeting tension as the women each explore their own romantic relationships.
Crawford is critical of Houston’s relationship with fellow musician Bobby Brown, reluctantly supporting her as the singer insists that he is right for her. However, unhappy with Bobby’s controlling presence, Crawford soon quits, leaving Houston to fend for herself.
The initial joy we witness in the early romance with Crawford offers a glimpse of Houston as a content and commanding person who knows what she wants. By contrast, the push and pull of her relationships at the height of her career show her floundering as she negotiates the dynamics of the people around her.
Kasi Lemmons’ direction and Ackie’s performance present Houston’s love for Crawford and for Brown in equal truth and frame their conflicts through the right to the last word in Houston’s ear. However, because this film juggles so many aspects of Houston’s life, it probes little further into the details of her ongoing relationship with Crawford.
Instead, she is left in the wings (quite literally in the final scene of the film), fighting for space against the narratives about drugs, fame, marriage, abusive family and Houston’s wish to be accepted and liked.
Didn’t we almost have it all
I Wanna Dance with Somebody depicts Whitney Houston’s bisexuality but never gives it proper life once she has decided to exclusively date men.
Rather than showing Houston tease out what straight-passing life might mean for her and slowly working that out with Crawford, the film flattens Houston’s reactivity and pivots their romance to a romantic friendship in the cut of just one scene.
Only Crawford is shown to feel strain or whiplash. Later, it is repeatedly implied that the people who disliked Crawford objected to her closeness to Houston and the implied romantic (and sexual) connection.
Crawford notices and is unrepentant. Yet, we glean no understanding of Houston’s feelings.
Huston’s choice to keep Crawford with her, knowing how she was received, is interesting and messy. In fact, Crawford’s own autobiography, A Song for You (2019), chronicles many disagreements and negotiations that they went through so that Houston could keep her close, but not too close.
The ambitious scope of I Wanna Dance with Somebody gives Whitney Houston a much-deserved place in the cinematic biopic pantheon of great artists. It is also direct and careful in representing her love for, and with, Robyn Crawford.
But in its commitment to surveying Houston’s life, the film omits the evolution of Houston’s boundaries with Crawford and how her decision to mask her sexuality factored into her other creative and professional choices.
While we are offered a glimpse of queer black joy seldom found in similar films in this genre, the queerphobia that demanded Houston focus solely on dating men is given a larger voice.