In the movie “Sparkle,” the title character faces the challenge of living into her own authenticity. She asks her mother why God would give her a gift, a talent to compose music if it was wrong for her to develop and to share the gift with the world. Not to live her authentic self would be torture. For me, this movie is about faith and the freedom that comes with a faith that inspires us to live authentic lives.
“Sparkle” is the last screen role of the late pop music diva Whitney Houston who plays Emma, the mother of three daughters who form a girl singing group in 1968 Detroit. I recognize the mother who keeps a tight rein on her daughters because she wants to keep them on a straight and narrow path into the black bourgeoisie.
Emma was strict with her daughters because she had lived through her own difficulties with men, the music industry and with substance abuse. It is this mother’s hope that her daughters will not repeat her mistakes.
This movie serves up some well-worn movie clichés and stereotypes. There is Sister, the sensual woman too beautiful for a happy ending. Think Elizabeth Taylor in “Raintree County,” “Butterfield 8” and even “Cleopatra.” There is the dark-skinned, no nonsense Delores, the first to wear an Afro. Think about the various iterations of Sapphire. There is the caricature a minister, a preacher who shows up for Sunday dinner and prays way too long. I have never met a minister that remotely resembles such a character. Then there is the requisite black pain and madness—drug addiction, domestic violence, murder and jail.
Yet, through it all “Sparkle” must make a decision about her life and her responsibility to her gift. A wonderful surprise in the movie is to hear the voice of another great lady of music, Nina Simone. She sings “Feeling Good” bedded a song all about living one’s essential self. Simone sings: “Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting by, you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. Freedom is mine and I know how I feel and I’m feeling good.”
Freedom is the theme of Houston’s final screen song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” We see Houston come full circle back to her roots in the African American church, back to a faith that never deserted her and to which she was loyal to the very end. She sang “Jesus Loves Me” at a party in the final hours of her life. In the movie, Houston’s voice is a voice full of the triumph and tragedy, the joy and the pathos of living through the challenges of life in the public eye for her entire adult life. She sings: “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me.”
Finally, as a mother, Houston tells Sparkle that having faith in oneself is necessary for success. We can see where God may have given Sparkle a gift, but her faith in herself and her own fierce determination is necessary to give the world something that may save someone’s life because, as she tells a music executive, her music is her own salvation.
Philosophers teach that we can only measure a life once it has ended. Now that Houston’s earthly work is done, we can look critically, carefully and lovingly at her body of work, her choices of songs to sing. One of her early hits was “The Greatest Love of All.” In that song she sings of the importance of self reliance, authenticity, dignity and love. She tells us in the song to find our strength in love. In her final movie, she teaches the importance of faith in our gifts, our dreams, our essential selves. And in this faith is our freedom.