(April 25, 2020). It’s confirmed. There will be a motion picture about the life and career of late supernova Whitney Houston, the legendary singer whose life ended tragically eight years ago when she was just 48.
The movie, which will bear the title of her No. 1 smash hit from 1987 – I Wanna Dance With Somebody – has the blessing of her estate, helmed by sister-in-law Pat Houston, plus Whitney’s longtime musical mentor and former Arista Records boss Clive Davis.
But perhaps even more important is who has signed on to write and produce the film: Anthony McCarten, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind such feature films as Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, The Two Popes, and The Theory of Everything, the latter two for which he received his nominations.
Actors from three of those movies won Best Actor Academy awards: Rami Malek (as Freddie Mercury), Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), and Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking). And both Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins received acting nods (but no wins) for The Two Popes at the last awards.
And while those credentials stand up well for any screenwriter, the acting nods were more a testimony to the actors’ performances – and perhaps the directors’ – than McCarten’s, which begs the obvious question: Who will play the lead role of Whitney Houston in this next biopic?
And, in what will likely be the most important role of her career, will the selectee be able to work enough magic to land her in the same Oscar orbit with the other lead actors from McCarten’s recent films?
Helping the cause will be Stella Meghie, the rising-star Canadian director with four feature films to her credit, including most recently The Photograph starring actress Issa Rae.
As a black woman, Meghie will certainly identify with whichever actor is lucky enough to secure this role, and as a self-proclaimed Whitney fan, she’ll likely be able to get the actress to bring empathy and passion to a character that too often was derided by media and fans for all the bad decisions she made in her later years.
This blog explores a dozen names that are likely to be considered for the role of Whitney. We’ll leave it to readers to decide which one they think will get it, or if there’s someone else out there we haven’t considered who is more likely (if so, please feel free to share in the comments section below).
In alphabetical order:
Rhyon Nicole Brown – Fans of this actress may know her from her role as Maya on the recently ended Fox series Empire, where her character mistakenly married into the Lyon family during a Las Vegas trip, but the 27-year-old Brown has honed her acting skills in other music-related roles over the years, including her portrayal as R&B singer Michel’le in the 2016 Lifetime movie Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le. Brown’s considerable acting resumé dates back to her childhood and includes many appearances on television sitcoms and movies. It would be interesting to see if she could stretch her acting chops to do justice to a role as monumental as this one.
Imani Hakim – This 26-year-old actress would be a dark horse contender but a nice pick if she were to get the role. Having been in the game as long as she has (since 2005 when she first starred in Everybody Hates Chris as the main character’s sister) she’s only been in a handful of feature films over the past fifteen years. Imani is not a singer, unlike others on this list, but the film’s producer would be paying her to act, not sing. She’s done the biopic thing before, too – portraying gymnast Gabby Douglas in The Gabby Douglas Story in 2014. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see her as Whitney.
Taraji P. Henson – The only reason the Empire star Henson is on this list is because Pat Houston sang her praises at a January 2020 function when asked who might play the role of Whitney in the upcoming biopic. While Henson is an acclaimed actress, there are several factors which make her an unlikely choice: 1) her age. Taraji will be 50 this September, older than Whitney lived to be; 2) her figure. The actress has more curves than Whitney ever did, especially during her younger years; and 3) Empire. Put simply, Taraji would not be believable as Whitney Houston, despite Pat’s gushing in January.
Jennifer Hudson – Short answer: no. File this one in the category of just-because-an-actress-is-black-and-famous-and-can-sing-doesn’t-mean-she’s-the-best-choice-to-play-another-black-famous-singer. Besides, Hudson is tapped to play late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in the upcoming biopic RESPECT. Let’s face it, you can’t be Whitney AND Aretha, especially not in the same decade.
China Anne McClain – The youngest of the three acting (and singing) McClain sisters, 21-year-old China Anne seems to stand the best chance of the three to have any shot at landing the role of Whitney Houston. Presumably, the producers would go with someone slightly older than the 20- or 21-year-old actors listed here, simply to make Whitney’s age progression more palatable as the storyline enters her later years. But, truth be told, Whitney didn’t age all that much throughout her life, and an actress like China – whose resume is steeped in Tyler Perry and Disney Channel productions (like Disney’s A.N.T. Farm and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne) – could pull it off with the assistance of a great makeup crew.
Lauryn McClain – The second of the three McClain sisters (and older sister to China) is considered a great actress in her own right. Having also starred in Disney’s A.N.T. Farm as well as other roles (like the first season of the YouTube series Step Up: High Water), plus with her time as a member of the family trio McClain, Lauryn could conceivably land the Whitney role and pull it off. Her agent should be lining up calls to the Pat Houston/Anthony McCarten camp immediately!
Demetria McKinney – McKinney would be the trendy pick to play Whitney. After all, she’s already done it once by portraying the late singer in the 2017 TV One film Bobbi Kristina. McKinney also has the familiarity factor of having starred in a regular sitcom (Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which was reportedly being revived this year). Working against the 40-year-old actress is the notion that Hollywood doesn’t like dipping in the same actors’ well twice for non-fictional lead character roles, especially when the earlier portrayal was in a made-for-television movie.
Brandy Norwood – Singer/actress Brandy has more connection to Whitney Houston than any other actress on this list, and would probably have been hand-picked by the late singer under different circumstances. Brandy certainly has the star power and the resume and – quite frankly – has aged gracefully in her 25-plus years in showbiz. Like they say, “black don’t crack” (oops, did I say “crack” in an article about Whitney?). Anyway, Brandy, who is 41 now, is probably too familiar an entity to be picked by the movie’s producers. Something tells me they’re gonna go with a relative unknown to play Whitney. Brandy is a no for that reason.
Keke Palmer – Ahhh, that smile. Sort of reminds me of the first time we saw Whitney’s music video for “You Give Good Love,” the song that broke open the floodgates and triggered Houston’s rise to superstardom in 1985. In it, Whitney flashed those pearly whites for the camera’s closeup shots, allowing the world to fall in love with her for the first time. Palmer’s considerable acting career dates back to 2004, when she starred in Barbershop 2: Back to Business. But the 26-year-old actress is no stranger to the music industry, as she’s either portrayed or acted alongside several musicians and even recorded two albums, one of which was ironically titled Waited to Exhale, a play on the title of a movie Whitney starred in in 1995. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this talented star land the role; she’s got the looks, the talent, and can carry a tune (not that she’ll have to for the movie).
Yara Shahidi – We all know her as Zoey Johnson – Andre and Rainbow’s oldest child on the TV sitcom Black-ish, before she left the regular cast to begin her own spinoff with Grown-ish two years ago. Shahidi, who turned 20 in February, is right at the age Whitney Houston was when she began recording her debut single “Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass in 1984. Known as much for her activism as well as her acting, Shahidi hasn’t delved into singing like the other actresses on this list have. However, it’s likely that either the original vocal tracks for Whitney’s songs will be used, or a vocal surrogate will be singing the tunes, leaving the selected actress to do just that: act. Landing a gig like this would catapult Shahidi to heights no one could have imagined before now.
Amandla Stenberg – The 22-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg has an impressive resume for her young age. She’s starred in television shows and movies dating back to 2011 when she was 13 and playing a younger version of Zoe Saldanas’ character in the film Colombiana. Her big breakthrough came in 2012 with The Hunger Games, where she played Rue. In June 2018, she came out as gay, which gives an interesting twist to the prospect of her playing Whitney, whose own private sex life was recently rehashed after former close friend and assistant Robyn Crawford disclosed details of their relationship. Depending upon whether the producers (and Whitney’s estate) decide to go there during I Wanna Dance, Stenberg could certainly lend empathy and understanding to Whitney’s character should she be chosen.
Zendaya – Rising superstar Zendaya would be a great pick to play Whitney except for two things: 1) her lighter complexion makes her harder to fathom as Whitney Houston than some of the other actresses on this list (although makeup and 21st-century technology could work wonders); and 2) she has likely transcended the role by now after having started in two Superman movies in the past three years, plus the blockbuster film, The Greatest Showman. Those three films alone have grossed nearly $3B in North American box office sums combined since 2017.
Zendaya might be a popular pick among movie fans, but this blogger believes that Pat Houston, Anthony McCarten and Co. will go with a lesser known name to better decouple the actress from the role of Whitney, the entertainer whose journey from young singing phenom in the mid-1980s to troubled superstar whose life was snuffed our too soon in 2012 will require nothing but the best from whomever is chosen.
So who do you think it will be?
Let us know what you think and provide comments below.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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