There was once a time when Philadelphia-born actor Nafessa Williams was on track to pursue a career in law. With a degree in criminal justice from West Chester University and experience in the homicide department of the District Attorney’s office, she was prepared to live out a completely different reality from now. In the midst of her early law career, she felt that it wasn’t the right path for her and began taking acting classes. A little over ten years ago, Williams starred opposite rapper Meek Mill in Streets, her first job in a career that now spans movies and TV like One Life to Live, Code Black, Black Lightning, A Holiday Chance, and most recently, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
The first chord of Whitney Houston’s voice rings out into the microphone and the crowd stands still. An unfading high note sends dozens of chills up and down the no-longer lonesome bodies heaped together in the crowd, suddenly sharing more in common than they did when they walked in. A voice that resonated with deep promise, authentic love, and dire passion. “The Voice of America”, the tabloids once called her.
Now, over 10 years since her tragic passing, the world still remembers Houston’s voice so effortlessly evoked. In the newly released Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody film, actor Nafessa Williams plays Houston’s Assistant, Creative Director, and former girlfriend Robyn Crawford—arguably Houston's closest confidant. Throughout the movie, Crawford and Houston are pushed away from each other in an attempt to follow the “norm,” but they’re never truly apart. Director Kasi Lemmons tells an honest and true story of the singer’s journey cast behind the shadows of rumors of her relationship with Crawford and a relentless drug cycle.
Upon reflecting on Crawford’s undying devotion to Houston until the very end, Williams says, “her loyalty is what I wanted people to know about her the most.” Entangled between what is love and what is “right” in the late 80s, Crawford and Houston embark on a troublesome journey to find happiness outside of each other’s romance.
This impassioned two-hour and twenty-four-minute celebration brings Houston’s melodious voice back to life, all while giving due credit to her shadowed away companion, Crawford. Flaunt sat down with Williams to explore the importance of telling Houston’s story in a true human light—exposing themes of queerness, Blackness, drugs, and her persistent attempt to use her voice to keep the imperfections of her life at bay, for as long as she could.
Did you ever listen to Whitney Houston growing up?
Yeah. Whitney Houston is my mom's favorite singer, so it has been like the soundtrack of my life. Even her gospel songs, I've always felt really connected. I grew up going to church, so her gospel songs definitely are a sweet reminder of my childhood. It's so funny, as you can imagine, I've been listening to her music as we're filming the movie, and even now I've been down a rabbit hole. It's just been really amazing to just tap into her voice even more—she is literally the voice. And I even like some of her more fun songs, upbeat songs.
After watching the movie, Robyn was probably the closest to Whitney throughout her lifespan. How did you manage to get your head around playing her role?
For one, it was just really exciting because I was happy that people were finally going to know the story of them together. Which I think deserves to be told, and I just did as much research as possible. There's not a lot of footage of her anywhere, really, because she kind of played her part. It speaks to who she was in their relationship. She was behind the scenes. Her book was a saving grace for me. Her autobiography told me everything that I needed to know about her, so that was a huge help. And then being on set with their literal family and friends who they've worked with for decades. A lot of those people were on set with us, helping us make the movie. So I was able to pick a lot of people's brains, ask them questions. 'What was Robyn like? What were her mannerisms?' That was really helpful too, knowing that we had the support of their family and friends.
Did you recognize any similarities between you and Robyn?
100%. For starters we're the same zodiac sign, which I'm super into. We're both Sagittarius'. When I found out that she was a Sag, I was like, 'that's 50% of everything that I need to know. So on top of having her book to pull from, it served me a lot. I understand the loyalty that Robyn has. I have that die-hard loyalty when I love someone, whether it's a friend or it's a romantic relationship, I kind of go all in. Her loyalty is what I wanted people to know about the most because it was her loyalty that allowed her to stay friends with Whitney even when she couldn't be with her.
Another similarity, Robyn likes to have a good time. She's a hard worker, she dreams really big, so I was able to understand her wanting to go on this journey with Whitney. I love how she wasn't trying to be in the forefront, but she also was able to benefit and enjoy a lot of Whitney's life alongside her. She was very adventurous, she liked to have fun. They say Robyn walked in the room and her smile would light the room up. So I was like, 'okay, I have a smile. I know how to lead with that.' So like you said, I tried to find those similarities and allow myself to lend them over to Robyn.
Robyn and Whitney themselves obviously had great chemistry together. Did you also have good chemistry with Naomi? What it was like working with her?
Yes. It made it all so easy, understanding Naomi and I's chemistry helped me to understand Robyn and Whitney's—it made total sense. We just enjoy each other, Naomi and I. She's the same sign as Whitney, so you've got two fire signs, a Leo and Sag, and it makes total sense, and it helped me to understand their relationship a bit more. We just have fun. We get on set, and we're like two kids acting up in a classroom. Our director, Kasi Lemmons, is like, 'all right guys, let's get it together,' because we're laughing the whole time, we're having fun, we're dancing. We just really feed off of each other's energy really well, and it's really natural and organic, which is a blessing as an actor. You pray for that chemistry with your co-star, and that's not always the case. So you recognize it when it is and you just hope that it translates on screen.
How would you describe the movie in a word, if you could, and why?
'Celebration.' To me, the movie feels like a celebration of Whitney's life in a music catalog. And obviously, we are brutally honest in a loving way, but it just feels like you're coming to see a big concert, but with some personal moments mixed in there as well. But to me, you know, I just want people who are fans of Whitney and even people who don't really know much about her, maybe some of the younger generations, I just want them to understand that this is a celebration of her life. I feel like we get to have the final say over the tabloids of what has been said about her, or what they chose to put out about her. And you know, this just shows her in a really beautiful human light. And we've seen Whitney movies before right? But I don't think we've seen one that has celebrated her and her music as I Wanna Dance With Somebody does. And I'm really proud of that. And, you know, I just feel like her purpose, she was put here on this earth to sing and to lend her voice over to us, and that is what you're going to enjoy and experience when you go see I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Your relationship with Whitney played a vital role in expressing the pressure and the difficulties that being queer had during this time and even today, a lot of times leading to censorship. So I would say that Robyn is one of the main faces of that, of queerness and the possible difficulty behind it. What does that mean to you?
You know, this isn't my first time playing a queer character, and I'm always just grateful that God chose me to be the voice for such a group of people. I know what it's like to be Black and underrepresented in the industry, so I can't imagine what it's like being Black and queer in our society, especially in the time that they came up in when it was completely shunned against. It was such a huge stigma. So I'm just happy to be an ally and I'm just really happy that young, Black, queer women in particular get to see themselves in a beautiful light and get to see their love celebrated. And hopefully, when they see Robyn on screen, they get to see a bit of themselves. And I hope that it brings a sense of normalcy and a sense of support and a sense of representation really, That's what it's really all about.
Furthermore, do you think this is what Kasi Lemmons was also seeking to do? What message do you think that she was trying to send in regards to that?
I mean, I think ultimately Kasi’s agenda was to tell the truth and it just so happens that they happen to be in a relationship and be in love with each other, and that was their truth. I think that was her goal.
What is one thing that you learned particularly when you were doing this movie?
For me, it spoke to Robyn's loyalty and how much she loved and adored Whitney. And even when she couldn't be with her, as I mentioned before, she was willing to still be her protector and be her confidant, and I just think that speaks to her character. So I would say, speaking on Robyn's character is her loyalty that I was just really, really impressed by. And as far as Whitney, it was cool to see her in these different love stories between her fans and between Clive, her family, Robyn, and even Bobby. She did it on her own terms, no matter what anybody thought. I feel that Whitney lived with such authenticity, and she was who she was no matter what anybody was saying. A prime example of that is marrying Bobby. Not a lot of people thought that that was a good idea, and she went with her heart and she went with what she wanted. And I think that speaks to a genuine energy in herself.
What were some of the most memorable parts of being in this film?
I think recreating the most iconic 90’s performances like the Super Bowl and watching Naomi recreate the Medley that she performed, like that brought tears to my eyes. I love music, so being up close and personal with the recording sessions and the music videos, I remember seeing them as a kid, so to reimagine them in our own way were some of my favorite moments.
Was there anything particularly difficult that you remember?
The breakup scene was really, really hard to shoot because it forced me to tap into some of my darker heartbroken moments that I had to lend over to Robyn, and my heart really just broke for her, knowing how bad she wanted to be with her. There's a place that you have to go within yourself, and it was just really hard to film. It was even really hard for me to watch, like, I cried when I watched that scene because my heart broke for Robyn. I understand the length and the depth of how much she loved her, just by doing my research. I believe that they were soulmates, so for you not to be able to be with your soulmate has to be soul-crushing.
What do you think comes next? What are you looking to do after this movie?
Well, I really love comedy, so that's something that I want to get into. I did just book something I'm not able to talk about it just yet. I'm really excited and I want you guys to look out for it. Comedy is something that's really, really important to me, and creatively I need to be able to do that, so that's what's next for me.
Photographed by Masato Onoda
Styled by Oretta Corbelli
Hair: Kee Taylor
Makeup: Tenelle Veira
Location: Park Lane Hotel