Just before Whitney Houston’s career begins in Sony Pictures’ musical biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the young singer shares a romantic kiss with her best friend Robyn Crawford. It’s sweet, intimate, and relatively brief, but alongside the epic ups and downs of the Grammy-winning icon’s critically acclaimed life, the deceptively small moment holds tremendous significance.
“I love the fact that she loved who she loved and there weren’t many questions,” said Naomi Ackie, who stars as Houston in the decade-long film and openly acknowledges her long-rumored affair with Crawford.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) from a script by Anthony McCarten, the film aims to do for Houston what the author’s 2018 Academy Award-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” did for Queen’s Freddie Mercury, by honoring her legacy and her formative relationships with parents John, and examines Cissy Houston, Arista Records founder Clive Davis, husband Bobby Brown and longtime confidant Crawford, whom she met as a teenager.
The latter is one of the most important relationships portrayed in the film, the director and star say, even as it shows Houston ending the romance under pressure to maintain a heteronormative public image. But not everyone involved in the project wanted the Whitney-Robyn kiss to make it to the big screen. “It’s the sweetest kiss. It’s like a first kiss, very romantic,” Lemmons told the Times. “And I fought for it.”
Now in theaters, I Wanna Dance with Somebody traces the late singer’s rise from gospel-educated New Jersey teenager to international recording star through the struggles of fame and addiction that led to her tragic death in 2012 led.
Houston’s budding relationship with Crawford unfolds early in the film, after the young women met while working as camp attendants in the circa 1980’s. Under the tutelage of her gospel singer mother, Houston hones the talents that will eventually earn her the nickname “The Voice,” Cissy (Tamara Tunie). While privately happily falling in love with Crawford, Houston is heavily influenced by the disapproval of her father, John (Clarke Peters), whose tight control over his daughter’s burgeoning career doesn’t allow for an overtly queer relationship.
According to Lemmons, there were behind-the-scenes debates with the singer’s estate, represented by sister-in-law Pat Houston (a producer on the film), about how to approach the relationship.
“They have feelings, and those feelings need to be respected,” said Lemmons, who says the Houston estate agreed to the relationship before joining the project in 2021 as a replacement for Stella Meghie, who reportedly took over the chair of the Directors had left about creative differences. “To their great credit, they said, ‘Okay, that was a part of Whitney’s life. That can be part of the movie.’”
But the kiss between Whitney and Robyn (Black Lightning’s Nafessa Williams) required delicate negotiation, according to the filmmaker. “I said, ‘Well, they probably kissed. We can really guess there was a romance there,'” Lemmons said. “I think we all know that at some point it was more than just friendship.”
Houston died of an accidental drowning at the age of 48 without publicly acknowledging the often speculated rumors of a romance with her close friend, assistant and later creative director. However, Crawford eventually addressed the relationship in her own 2019 memoir.
“We wanted to be together,” Crawford wrote in A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston, revealing that Houston ended things romantically when she signed her first record deal. “She said we shouldn’t be physical anymore because it would make our journey even more difficult.”
Davis, also a producer on the project, confirmed the romance while promoting the film this week. “The film sets the record straight,” he told Extra. “They had a teenage affair for a year.” Crawford could not be reached for comment.
Working closely with the estate brought valuable resources to the project, such as access to archive materials and family members, and the use of Houston’s own vocal recordings, which can be heard throughout the film and are lip-synched to an Ackie. But that working arrangement prevented the filmmakers from reaching out directly to Crawford or Houston’s ex, Brown, neither of whom are involved with the film.
“I wanted to, but I didn’t,” said Lemmons, who said she knew Crawford had a difficult relationship with the estate. “Because I was working with the property, I was careful. People’s feelings had to be taken into account.”
Instead, reports from those who knew Houston, including Crawford’s book, helped fill in the dimensions of the “profound and important” relationship. Davis’ personal stories – including revelations about an attempted intervention depicted in the film – also proved invaluable. And Lemmons drew on her own history with the “I Will Always Love You” singer and the “Bodyguard” star, whom she’d met years earlier while developing scripts for them.
One meeting in particular left Lemmons “haunted.” Houston was 45 minutes late, visibly exhausted and having trouble concentrating, she recalled. “The woman I saw was very different from the image I had in mind,” she said. Crawford was nearby watching Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina, and Houston seemed distracted by wanting to rejoin them. “I could feel the weight of everything on her.”
As she left, Lemmons said, Houston’s father, John, approached. What he said surprised her. “I thought he was going to say, ‘I’m sorry. She’s not usually like that.’ But what he said was, ‘I have to recommend a film for you to write for her. I want her to be barbie. That’s the brand.’”
The exchange changed Lemmon’s perspective on Whitney the icon, Whitney the woman and the pressure of mass appeal she carried on her shoulders. Lemmons drew on these insights to make I Wanna Dance with Somebody. “But of course I’d like to speak to Robyn, and I’m really looking forward to Robyn seeing the film,” Lemmons said. “I hope we’ve done some justice to that relationship.”
Ackie landed the role of Houston after a four-month audition process that included extensive singing and dancing. Williams was cast as Crawford after a reading via Zoom when her chemistry with Ackie was “undeniable.” While neither of them met with Crawford over the course of their research, both say her memoir has become an essential reference.
“I felt like Robyn handed it to me and was like, ‘That’s all you need to know,'” said Williams, noting Crawford’s relative absence of archival footage. “She wasn’t trying to be there [front of] the camera, she was behind the scenes. She literally stood behind Whitney and had her back.”
Reuniting over video chat ahead of the film’s release, the actors reflected on why it was important to make Houston and Crawford’s relationship not just briefly romantic, but nondescript.
“There are people who come into your life that you have an unspeakably deep connection with, and whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship, or something else, that’s rare in anyone’s life,” Ackie said . “For me, they found in each other someone who could really understand who they were in each moment and accepted that. And showing that to people — people who already love Whitney — adds another beautiful layer to who she was.”
“Someone asked me about labels, and I don’t feel comfortable answering that question for any of them because they didn’t label it,” Williams added. “I think they were soul mates.”
Ackie agreed. “I find it quite interesting that sometimes we have the urge to put labels on everything, even when the people involved in the relationship don’t do it themselves,” she said. “It has always been the energy like there are no words for the love we have for each other. And it was a pleasure to create that.”