They say Whitney Houston had the voice of an angel. A cousin of Dionne Warwick, she grew up singing in her church choir. She was beautiful, with a smile that could light up a room. Which is why, when she died in 2012, this monumental diva’s fall struck a chord with the entire world. Like so many legends before her, she died of a drug overdose that was a long time coming. Houston had been using for years, but what drove her over the edge remained a mystery to most of the world — until now.
Through interviews with friends and employees (most of her friends were employees), “Whitney: Can I Be Me” filmmakers Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal take a strong stand, connecting the dots between a number of pivotal moments in Houston’s life that led to her heartbreaking decline. Namely: Her controlling parents, the night she was booed at the Soul Train awards in 1989, and the fact that she was forced to hide her romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford.
To the public, Crawford was Houston’s best friend from growing up in Newark. The person who knew her best, Crawford acted as assistant, manager, and confidante. To those in the know, and to many of the people interviewed in the film, Crawford was Houston’s lover and partner. While no one from the family confirmed this, the film makes a strong case without stating it outright. Instead, they talk around it.
They discuss how homosexuality is less accepted by the black community, especially in the religious community in which Houston was raised. In an interview with Oprah (no stranger to gay rumors herself), Houston’s mother Cissy says she would not have accepted her daughter if she were gay. Only one woman says what the movie so clearly wishes it could prove: “I think she was bisexual.”
Gossip magazines will pull the salacious details they can from “Can I Be Me,” which is likely why, according to Broomfield, they almost pulled the film two hours before its Tribeca premiere. (“Legal reasons,” he said before the screening began. The family is also producing its own documentary.)
Houston’s sexuality is not the only thing her estate wants kept secret: The film obtained a copy of a 1995 report from Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, detailing the dangerous nature of her drug addiction and urging the family to intervene. One week later, he was told his services were no longer needed. When the filmmakers talk to Roberts, he becomes emotional and raises his voice: “There is not one person out there not responsible for the death of that beautiful woman.”
But the film’s main triumph is in crafting a convincing narrative with a clear point of view. Much of Dolezal’s footage has never been seen; he filmed Houston on her last successful European tour in 1999, just before Crawford finally left for good due to irreconcilable differences with Bobby Brown, Houston’s husband of 15 years and enabler of her drug habits. Crawford is a constant background presence who clearly calms Houston, whom she called Nippy, just like her family did. In the film, she walks with a laid-back confidence, sporting metallic suits and a handsome face. If they were a couple, they were a good-looking one. In the most iconic photo of the two women, Crawford sports a bucket hat, leaning towards Houston, her hand resting casually under her chin. Houston is beaming.
“I would say that Whitney’s sorta strange,” Crawford says in one of her rare on-camera moments. In a hotel room, Houston and Brown re-enact a scene from “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” laughing as Brown feeds her cake. “Here’s what Tina didn’t do!” she screams as she chases him with a butter knife. Later, she squeals with excitement while watching “Set It Off,” the 1996 film starring Queen Latifah as a lesbian bank robber. “It’s a ladies’ movie,” she says. “Shoot ’em up!”
Another piece of the puzzle is race. Houston was just 18 years old when behemoth music producer Clive Davis discovered this enormous talent. According to the film, he had a vision for a black female pop star that could appeal to white audiences. He had tried it with Dionne Warwick, but her image was set and besides, she wasn’t having it. Encouraged by her mother to have the career she always wanted, Houston was eager to please and easily manipulated. Musical collaborators from those early days say producers scrapped any track that was deemed “too black,” alienating Houston from black audiences. A former Arista Records executive summed it up this way: “We don’t want a female James Brown.”
“She changed history for black women. And she paid a price for it,” says another friend. “They wanted to present her as a princess. That’s what white America wanted.” Cut to a television clip of Serge Gainsbourg saying “I would like to fuck her,” and caressing the face of a very young Houston, forced to laugh it off. White America wanted a princess, and straight America wanted a sex symbol.
There is no doubt Houston loved Brown, however toxic that love may have been. The film concludes with this quote from Brown’s 2016 book: “I really think if Robyn had been accepted into Whitney’s life, then she would still be alive today.” Tabloids will surely turn this film into tabloid fodder; that’s what they do. But “Can I Be Me” reveals some very dark truths about the high price of fame, and the danger in insisting entertainers appeal to straight, white America. One look at the news indicates that is a lesson we still have not learned.
“Whitney: Can I Be Me” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Spotlight Documentary section. It is a Showtime Documentary Film.