Women's Lives on Screen

What’s Whitney Got to Do with It: Black Female Triumph and Tragedy in the 2015 Lifetime Biopic Whitney





biopic, Whitney Houston, stardom, Black female stars


In 2015, the cable television network Lifetime broadcast the biopic Whitney, depicting the troubled life of the late superstar singer Whitney Houston. Whitney is the first film by director Angela Bassett, who, as actress, famously portraited Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It (Brian Gibson, 1993). In this article, I will first position Whitney within a larger tradition of the Hollywood biopic by making a comparison to earlier important biopics about black female entertainers, namely Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972), starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday, and What’s Love Got to Do with It. Second, I will discuss how the narratives of these three biopics tend to reduce their female subjects to victims, emphasizing the tragedy in their personal lives, while assigning much more agency to the male partners of these black female entertainers. Third and finally, I will analyze the final scenes of these three biopics in detail, as each presents a grand finale musical performance that seems to resolve the contradictions of the triumph and tragedy in their subject’s lives, yet in significantly different ways.

Author Biography

Jaap Kooijman, University of Amsterdam

Jaap Kooijman is an associate professor in Media Studies and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam, author of Fabricating the Absolute Fake: America in Contemporary Pop Culture (AUP, 2013), and co-editor, with Glyn Davis, of The Richard Dyer Reader (BFI, 2022). His articles on pop culture and stardom have been published in journals such as The Velvet Light Trap, Celebrity Studies, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Popular Music and Society, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, and [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, as well as in edited collections such as Unpopular Culture (AUP, 2016), A Companion to Celebrity (Wiley Blackwell, 2016), Revisiting Star Studies (Edinburgh UP, 2017), Music/Video: Histories, Aesthetics, Media (Bloomsbury, 2017), and Beyoncé: At Work, On Screen, and Online (Indiana UP, 2020).





Women's Lives on Screen