When I wrote back in April (April! It feels like three years ago, and even though that is desperately clichéd, it doesn’t make it any less true) that Stella Meghie had been tapped to direct the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, I also wrote, “ It’ll take an unknown to really, truly be able to play Whitney with abandon, without carrying the weight in her performance of who ‘Whitney Houston’ would someday be.”
So, with yesterday’s announcement that Whitney would be played by Naomi Ackie, the question becomes whether this is an ‘unknown’ – and whether that actually matters. The headline in The Hollywood Reporter fails to highlight her biggest role to date, as Jannah in The Rise Of Skywalker (though whether that’s because the character was deemed superfluous by people who found the entire movie either pointless or shrug-worthy or inadequate is a different story), so for all intents and purposes, audiences are coming in to Naomi cold.
Still, I maintain that the most important quality for anyone playing Whitney is her effervescence, her kind of … not refusal to see the gravitas of who she is in the scope of the pop music world in the 1980s, but a refusal to get all serious and broody about it – we all got to go along with Whitney, and sing along and feel the same joy even though she had the kind of talent most of us can’t even wrap our heads around because it would provoke an existential crisis.
I can’t know for sure whether Ackie has that, and obviously if Meghie and the producers, including Whitney’s family, think she does, that’s halfway there. But if you want a hint at what made them think she could do it, may I recommend this clip of her winning a BAFTA for The End Of The F***ing World? Guys, it’s already weird because it’s on Zoom, bad pandemic jokes happen, etc, but instead of tearing up, this woman actually cracks up – my favourite brand of cracking up, involving the blowing of a raspberry on the most prestigious awards your country has in your industry. I love it, because it’s rare, and it’s not overly image conscious, and while I shouldn’t base so much on YouTube’s offerings, that’s the kind of irreverence and willingness to take a joke on herself that gives me a hint of what Meghie and the producing team must have seen.
And while they don’t need my endorsement, it also means I’m excited anew, some more, to see Whitney brought to life on the big screen – and playing ‘Dance With Somebody’ on a loop until then.