‘Black excellence’: Fans in Philly celebrate release of Whitney Houston biopic

Philly-based actress Nafessa Williams portrays Houston’s partner Robyn. Williams’ charitable foundation, Fearless, gave fans in Philly free tickets to an early screening.

A girl gives the peace sign as she smiles.

10-year-old Rowan helps pass out free tickets to 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' at the Walnut Street Cinemark. "[Whitney] just has an amazing voice and I just love her," she said. (Sam Searles/WHYY)

While some may be watching blue aliens on the big screen this Christmas, Philadelphians are buying tickets to a different larger-than-life story: the legacy of Whitney Houston.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is the first biopic of superstar Whitney Houston. So far, the film is getting mixed reviews from critics, but audiences in Philly and beyond are giving the movie high praise.


Singer Whitney Houston sings into a microphone while pointing into the air.
File photo: In this July 11, 1999, file photo, singer Whitney Houston performs “Until You Come Back To Me” during the 26th annual American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, File)

Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Houston is still known as “The Voice of Her Generation.” Before Houston was a household name, she recorded “Hold Me” with a familiar star: Sound of Philadelphia’s Teddy Pendergrass. “Hold Me” was the first song he recorded after his infamous accident.

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The film begins in New Jersey, where Houston (portrayed by Naomi Ackie) meets and falls for Robyn Crawford (portrayed by Philly-based actress Nafessa Williams.)

Williams’ charitable foundation, Nafessa’s Fearless Foundation, sponsored a free screening of the film on Friday. Philadelphians of all ages turned out to the Walnut Street Cinemark. While there was some discrepancy as to the number of tickets available, prompting some moviegoers to leave, most stayed.

A woman poses on the red carpet.
Nafessa Williams attends the world premiere of “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” at AMC Lincoln Square on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

In the crowded theater, audiences laughed and cried during the film, with several audible gasps in moments where Ackie’s Houston snaps back at those she feels are taking advantage of her.

A woman poses on the red carpet.
Naomi Ackie attends the world premiere of “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” at AMC Lincoln Square on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

After the credits rolled, audience members left feeling inspired, uplifted and singing along.

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Moviegoer Cashae Star’s expectations were exceeded. “I didn’t expect that much [from the trailer],” Star said. “I normally go see movies like this and they never serve. They never give me anything. This right here? They did it. They did! I would go see it once, twice, three times. I would bring everyone.”

Hakeem Abdul watched with his twin nieces, Brianna and Ayanna Artist. He said he was glad the film kept a positive light on Houston but didn’t completely omit the “demons” she battled.

Brianna is a freshman, studying media at Howard University. “I love supporting Black women,” she said. “As … a filmmaker, I just think we need to see more films like this: authentic and realistic. We don’t need no more trauma in film.”

“Black excellence!” interjected Ayanna.

“Yeah, Black excellence,” Brianna agreed. “Younger kids need to see Black women and Black people in the film industry making a difference.”

Whitney Houston sings into a microphone.
File photo: In this Feb. 13, 2011 file photo, singer Whitney Houston performs at the pre-Grammy gala salute to industry icons with Clive Davis honoring David Geffen in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file)

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” opened officially on Dec. 23; to find a showtime near you, search at the movie’s official website.

Sam Searles is a Report for America corps member covering gun violence and prevention for WHYY News.

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