Fame is a fickle friend, especially when you are trying to reconcile your public persona with the person you are inside. Nick Broomfield’s somber and devastating documentary on the late-great Whitney Houston follows the pop icon's meteoric rise and the fame, attention, money and addictions that eventually cost her everything.
“Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’” opens with the fateful 911 call from the Beverly Hilton to the LAPD in 2012. Houston had perished in her hotel bathtub after falling asleep with opioids and cocaine in her system. Flashing back in time, “Can I Be Me” takes us back to 1999, behind the scenes of Houston’s last successful world tour. With tons of never before seen footage shot by German filmmaker Rudi Dolezal, we watch the then-36-year-old star, move through European cities night after night. She plays and reenacts scenes from "What's Love Got To Do With It?" with her rambunctious and often lewd husband Bobby Brown, teases her staff, stuffs herself with pizza and chicken wings and hangs with her dear friend Robyn Crawford. And yet, in the quiet moments when she’s getting her makeup touched up or having her hair curled, Whitney Houston looks exhausted.
A sliding timeline that moves all the way back to Houston’s childhood in Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, we can see how much the image of “The Whitney Houston” was molded and handled by her parents, Clive Davis, Arista Records and the industry as a whole. Though she was a church girl, often under the thumb of her mother Cissy Houston, the “I Will Always Love You” singer was no stranger to the edgier side of life. In the film, her brothers, Gary and Michael emphasize that she often partied with them and did drugs recreationally as a teenager. However, the overwhelming spectacle of her life especially after the premiere of “The Bodyguard: and her high-profile marriage to industry bad boy Bobby Brown aided in her dependency on narcotics. Apparently, she overdosed on cocaine while filming “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995.
Unable to secure interviews from Whitney’s core inner circle Broomfield entertains theories from her band members, hair stylist, makeup artist and even a former bodyguard, David Roberts who was dismissed in 1995 after reporting Whitney’s drug use to her camp. Despite their obvious love and affection for one another, Brown’s infidelity and philandering are mentioned in the film and we see for ourselves how Houston propped him up on her tours to try and “balance out" their relationship. And yet, there is no mention of Brown's 2003 arrest where he allegedly assaulted his then-wife. Broomfield also suggests that Houston and Robyn Crawford were lovers, which has been a rumor for many years. Bobby Brown's entrance fractured their relationship, and it only got worse with Crawford leaving the 1999 world tour early and walking out of Houston's life for good.
Despite the fanfare surrounding this revelation in the film, dissecting Whitney Houston's sexuality isn’t important here. Instead, the whispers and the rumors just like the moment when she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards for being “too pop,” “too crossover,” and "not Black enough" was just something else that would eat away at her soul. For those loved and followed Houston's life and career, “Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’” isn’t particularly revelatory. However, the interviews with everyone from Barbara Walters and Diana Sawyer, the footage from the 2005 Bravo show, “Being Bobby Brown,” and the 1999 tour footage all give us a composite of who Whitney Houston truly was.
With a debut album that sold a whopping 25 million records, roles in blockbuster hits, and a deep faith in God, the fact that Whitney Houston felt she could not be herself, is what’s most devastating. Though Broomfield lays all of these various pieces of Houston’s life out for us, the late singer still doesn't quite get the opportunity to speak for herself.
As her former bodyguard says in the film, "There is not one person out there not responsible for the death of that beautiful woman.” In “Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’” we come to learn that he is correct. As a society, and collective, by demanding so much of the woman with the voice of an angel, we, in turn, took everything from her. As one of Houston's friends says in the film, “She changed history for Black women. And she paid the price for it.” The saddest part of all is that five years after her death, we’re clearly not done taking.
“Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film will air on Showtime later this year.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami