Samson and Whitney

The ‘Sparkle’ remake that opened today was about updating a groundbreaking African-American cult classic for a younger audience with more modern sensibilities. When you exclude that horrible night in February before the Grammy awards, you would still have an event that returned a fresh, luminous Whitney to the big screen. The return of a musical legend and box-office heavyweight to the biggest stage in entertainment. During the red carpet warm up event, the reporter mentioned that ‘Sparkle’ had sold the most tickets of all other movies that week. Quite an achievement. This is almost 20 years after Houston’s breakout portrayal of Rachel Marron opposite Kevin Costner in ‘The Bodyguard,’ and yet another testament to Whitney’s enduring appeal to the public.

Smoky Robinson’s appearance and comments made for the third-best moment of the event. He really loved her and called her “his baby!”

When Jordin Sparks saw him and embraced him, it almost made me mist up. Their embrace was sweet, memorable, and I can only imagine what an amazing photo threesome Jordin, Whitney and Smoky would have made.

Anyway, the stat on the ticket sales settled a lingering question for me: Was Whitney strong enough, in health, spirit and voice, to help carry this movie? She has a supporting role, whereas Jordin is the lead, but let’s be honest. This was a big, big movie, with enough room for two stars, and Whitney is the other one. We were all looking for her to return to form with this film.

Shortly after hearing about Whitney’s death, I thought about parallels in her life and that of the Biblical character Samson. It’s either instructional doctrine or an allegory, depending on where you are on the metaphysical spectrum. It’s a familiar story either way: a man appointed as judge over Israel who is lead a consecrated life and is blessed with superhuman strength and matchless public appeal. But like a lot of other gifted and charismatic men, Samson strayed. Felled by a woman, of all things, sent by his enemies to destroy him. Delilah was a transparent minx, taking all his bait whenever she asked about the source of his strength. But Samson must have been thick, and he failed to recognize what a threat she was. He revealed the secret of his strength. Then came his public humiliation, gradual redemption and last stand.

This is Whitney’s first movie in a long time, and it turned out to be her last stand. ‘Sparkle’ took a while to complete because of three deaths associated, two aside from hers. Aaliyah was the favorite to play the title role until she died in a plane crash about 12 years ago, and a famed author also passed away. But it’s also her last stand. A chance to shine again as the rare, inimitable talent and true beauty that she was. I say “true beauty” on purpose to quote Costner who described her that way just before her album “I Look to You” came out in 2009. (I have a sneaking suspicion—though totally baseless—that Costner had a massive crush on Whitney at a certain point. LOL.) The album displays the singing of a former superhuman vocalist whose gift, like Samson’s had been cut down. She sounded not ordinary, but noticeably different from that supernova we had all been accustomed to hearing. It is unfair to ask any vocalist to sound exactly the same after blasting her three-octave, mezzo soprano voice for 30 years. But Whitney was and is recognizable on that album. Her essence and “true beauty” shone through on that album. It’s undeniable. The high notes and elasticity that astounded the world were diminished, but not totally gone. The technical mastery and passion were all there. When she sings “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” I feel just as moved and tingly as I did when she sang “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” That is true beauty, at least in my view.

‘Sparkle’ has no direct bearing on the theme of this blog. Most black women everywhere, whether in an interracial marriage or not, though, have an interest in Whitney. We all wanted to see her survive and thrive. I have plans to see ‘Sparkle’ next week, with a friend, after the initial wave of moviegoers. I hate the noisy chatty crowds, and the second weekends weed them out. No doubt I’ll hear very soon whether Whitney, like Samson, shook off the pain and regrets of the past, and the taunts of the Philistines who tried to pull her down. We’ll see whether Whitney called on God for another burst of strength and brought the house down.

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