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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

I Wanna Dance With Somebody Star Naomi Ackie Discusses the Proud Black Woman Behind the Icon

Ackie spoke with The Root to reveal how the upcoming biopic explores Whitney Houston's complicated life away from the stage.

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Photo: Emily Aragones

Whitmey Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody delves into the private burden behind the legendary singer’s unparalleled success. An overarching theme of the film is how Whitney is constantly pushed to be all things to all people, a concept Black women are familiar with. But in the superstar’s case, it meant she never had time to be true to herself and that pressure manifested itself in extremely unhealthy ways. There’s a point in the film when Whitmey tells her friend and mentor Clive Davis that she’s exhausted, because “all Black women are exhausted.” It truly underscores what the legendary singer spent her life dealing with and is the most fascinating part of her story. Star Naomi Ackie spoke with The Root about finding the humanity behind the superstar.

For Ackie, who has the impossible task of portraying Whitney, the idea of being a Black woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders was the most accessible path into the psyche of the larger-than-life performer.

“That line, and that sentiment is something that I understand. It felt like the easiest thing to access. It’s the part of Whitney that I know,” Ackie told The Root. “I have grappled with my own life about who we are, how I belong to different communities of people, and what my responsibilities are. The process of breaking away from that and realizing what is mine and what is other people’s is a very hard one. I think that is a journey that Whitney was going through, and it takes a very long time.”

I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY - Official Trailer (HD)

Ackie is great at conveying how alone Whitney is in her struggle, as everyone is so concerned about the star they see as a meal ticket, and very few of the people in her life are there just for her. And to those who do offer help, she’s not ready to admit there’s a problem because the world is telling her that she needs to be perfect at all times.

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“Nowadays it’s easier to have the language for that. It’s easier to have these communities and conversations about that,” Ackie continued. “But even 10 years ago, is very hard to put into words. So that struggle for Whitney was universal and I think it made sense to me. It definitely was something more easily understandable than the idea of stardom or fame. Something I really enjoyed about doing this was bringing her back to humanity. Because so much of what she did was larger than life and sometimes felt superhuman, those moments of universal connection was actually things that I really held on to.”

Davis and Whitney’s sister-in-law/executor of the Houston Estate, Pat Houston, are among the film’s producers, so not only is the “I Have Nothing” singer’s voice used in the movie, aspects of her life that have previously been kept private are portrayed on screen. Her relationship with lifelong friend Robyn Crawford, her struggles with addiction and her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown are all featured as important parts of Whitney’s story.

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“To understand Whitney’s greatness, we also need to understand the context in which she was living. From her relationships with Bobby to Robyn, the pressure from her father to continue performing, her relationship with her mom,” Ackie said. “And those things really bring us back to that idea that, ‘Wait, this is a very human experience.’ And you’ve got to be so sensitive about it too. Luckily for us, we had the family there and Clive there who gave us permission to tell parts of her story that they felt was necessary to give context to her life, her lived experience. But again, it was a close negotiation. For me, the main priority was to make sure that we hold on to her dignity and her integrity during this. That we share, but we’re not gratuitous and we’re not exploiting Whitney. That this is about creating empathy and not entertainment out of somebody’s sorrow and pain.”

While the film is somewhat safe and doesn’t take many chances with the story, it does treat the star with the dignity and respect she wasn’t always afforded when she was alive. Something her fans will really appreciate.

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Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody hits theaters Dec. 23.