Since Whitney Houston’s sudden and shocking death three weeks ago, her fans have been clamoring for all things — music, videos and movies — related to the pop diva. And producer Debra Martin Chase, writer Mara Brock Akil and director Salim Akil, the creative trio that worked with Houston on her final film project Sparkle, have emerged as partial and de facto gatekeepers of Houston’s legacy. The trio talked to BET.com about the movie’s second long road to the big screen and the pop icon’s unforgettable performance in the film — the story of a family of sisters who encounter heartache on their road to stardom.
“It was all Whitney’s idea. She was like, 'What about remaking Sparkle?' We were both like, 'That is a brilliant idea!'” recalls Chase. “We brought the idea to Warner Bros., because we were developing it for Aaliyah. And, at the time of her unfortunate death, we had a greenlight for the project. So then it sat on the shelf for 12 years," she says. "But a couple of years ago, I had dinner with an executive from Sony who loved Sparkle who was like, ‘Let’s try to finally get this done.’”
After the project was greenlit into a second life, the idea arrived on the desks of husband-and-wife directing and writing team Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. But the duo behind such popular TV and film fare as Girlfriends, The Game and Jumping The Broom admit they initially had reservations about tackling such legendary cinematic territory.
“I said 'no' at first,” says Salim about when he was first approached to direct a new version of the 70s classic. “I’m not going to get lynched by Black people. Black people love that [original] Sparkle," he laughs. "But then I started to think about it and I said, ‘A lot of young ladies don’t know the movie.’ It was a chance to introduce this story to a younger generation and hopefully add in some things to make it even more beautiful.”
Equally daunted by the task, wife Mara was also concerned about losing her hip reputation as one of TV’s most popular show creators. “I was like, 'Gosh I can’t.' I’m doing okay right now. People think I’m kind of cool. If I mess this up, I can go back to the back of the line,” she says. “But writing Sparkle was a magical journey for me.”
Over a decade later into the project, with changing times and new young pop stars in vogue, the production also had to find a new leading lady. "There’s magic in moviemaking and when the stars align everything falls into place," says Chase. "And as fabulous as Aaliyah would have been, Jordin Sparks is incredible, she makes the world her own and it’s a brilliant movie debut."
And despite the various challenges of bringing the new Sparkle to the big screen, both Chase and Salim admit what will resonate most among Houston fans is the pop legend's stunning portrayal as the film’s matriarch, Emma.
“People are going to be amazed in the most positive ways about Whitney’s performance, she was on a whole other level," says Chase who, in addition to Sparkle, also produced The Princess Diaries and The Cheetah Girls franchises with Houston. "She loved every minute of making this movie. Whitney was pure joy [on film.]”
Echoing the same sentiment about working with the icon, “It was a wonderful experience all around. Whitney, everybody brought their A-game," says Salim. "That’s what I asked for and that’s what I got. And I think everybody will be really happy.”
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(Photos from left: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, Christopher Polk/Getty Images)