The premiere of Whitney was no family affair. But no one expected Whitney Houston‘s kin to attend.
“It was the family’s choice and decision because of what they want to do and whatever their desires or their plans are, not to be involved in this one,” director Angela Bassett said of Whitney, a new Lifetime telefilm about the beloved entertainer’s triumphant career, often troubled life and tragic death.
But a blast of Huston’s colleagues and friends did make the screening. It took place at the Paley Center for Media, just blocks from the Beverly Hilton hotel, where the 48-year-old Houston drowned in her guest room in February 2012. The official coroner’s report listed heart disease and cocaine as contributing factors in her death.
Relatives were invited, but declined, to participate in the Whitney project from the start, Bassett explained. The Oscar-nominated actress marked her feature-directing debut with the biopic, which debuts Jan. 17 on the Lifetime cable network.
“But they didn’t have anything negative to say about it,” Bassett noted. “You know, sometimes to be silent is the greatest gift.”
Bassett and Houston worked closely during production and promotion of the 1994 big-screen drama Waiting to Exhale, and Bassett expressed fond memories of her co-star.
“To have had that experience of being around her,” Bassett said, “all that came back to serve me in the making of this.”
Nevertheless, without the family’s blessing, the Whitney production was not allowed to use Houston’s original recordings. So, to deliver something approximating Houston’s distinctive voice, Bassett hired singer Deborah Cox, Houston’s onetime labelmate, recording partner and longtime friend.
Cox took the gig, even though she said it was destined to be a thankless assignment.
“I knew I would be judged,” Cox recalled, with a smile. “Everyone was going to come for me. Don’t. I come with love.”
As did actress former America’s Top Model runner-up Yaya DaCosta (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), who said she took on the role of Houston concerned about just one critic: Houston herself.
“When we were on set, that’s all I thought about: ‘I don’t really care what any living person thinks. I want to make her proud,'” DaCosta recalled. “And that, for me, is all I needed to be OK with this project.”