Why Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: “Can I Be Me” is The Documentary We Don’t Want To See, But Have To
For our sake
February 11th marks the six year anniversary of Whitney Houston’s tragic death. The world-class singer and actress who is recognized as “one of the best-selling artists of all time” by Guinness Book of Records — was found dead at the age of 48 — in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel — during Grammys weekend. She was unconscious in her bathtub and the coroner’s report confirmed her death as “accidental drowning” due to the damaging effects of heart disease — stemming from years of drug abuse — specifically cocaine.
Famed documentarian Nick Broomfield — who is responsible for the 2003 hauntingly jarring film — Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer — that captivatingly captured the glaring misfortune of Aileen Wuornos — who was executed back in 2002 — does another remarkable job in his most recent homage to Houston — Whitney: Can I be Me.
My love affair with Houston began with the follow up to her self-titled debut album — Whitney Houston (1985) — that was appropriately christened — Whitney (1987).
The beautiful girl on the cover with the head full of curls and dazzling smile matched my hopeful disposition — and I was convinced that she was embodying the fairy-tale that I envisioned would come true for me — when it was my turn.
Decades later — I’m reluctantly approaching middle age and Whitney Houston is dead.
A few years before her death — Houston was pretty much immersed in non-stop controversy regarding her escalating dependency on drugs which was affecting not only her physical appearance — but also her ability to perform in the astute way that recalled the splendor of the past. The rumors of her mother — Cissy Houston — a successful singer in her own right — publicly pleading for her daughter’s life on radio stations — basically confirmed the promise that the worst was yet to come.
The one and only season of the ill-fated reality TV show on Bravo — Being Bobby Brown — that depicted the often times volatile relationship between Bobby Brown and then wife — Houston — was absolutely the final nail in the coffin. It revealed a side of the Newark, New Jersey native that many hadn’t seen before — including me. The projected image of the “wholesome girl” with an angelic voice and a heart of gold was crumbling under the pressure of a rougher exterior that exposed an erratic temperament — which most attributed to Brown’s influence.
The former New Edition heartthrob’s “bad boy” persona was legendary — especially when the solo act officially took off and spurned the music videos that made girls swoon. Houston was undeniably drawn to everything that made Bobby Brown “Bobby Brown” and her marriage to him gave her mother and those close to her — heart palpitations due to the fear of what such a lethal combination could manifest.
Once shit hit the fan — it seemed that their concerns were eventually validated as Houston confirmed the abuse in the relationship. But the rumor that Brown was responsible for her nasty cocaine habit ended up being false.
And that’s what makes Broomfield’s latest effort endearingly effective — as we are treated to never-before-seen footage —including clips from her 1999 tour in Germany — as well as insightful interviews from those who catered to her — both personally and professionally.
The goal of the documentary according to Broomfield — is to shed much-needed light on the complicated world that Houston navigated — from the moment she became one of the biggest stars in the world to the almost end — when her tarnished reputation gained the momentum that matched another fated icon — Michael Jackson — who also tragically died amidst a whirlwind of bad press and the bitter betrayal from legions of former fans — as well the gross negligence of confidantes.
Can I be Me was released in 2017 — and during an interview with Rolling Stone — the English director narrowed in why he felt the need to exonerate Houston’s tarnished reputation after her devastating death:
“We’re always looking for a reason to not give people a second chance, and I think she was so harshly judged for her drug addiction. There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.”
And after watching the film that most of us don’t want to see — it’s clear that if you were ever a fan of Houston and desperately need a reason to restore the empathy that was lost — during what seemed to be the late singer’s period of self-inflicted wounds — derived from the unwillingness to make a smooth recovery — this offering will serve as a soothing guide.
There’s so much to dig into — but the crux of it all is settled in the fact that Houston was basically a victim of a system that masterminded her superstardom at the expense of who she really she was and what she wanted to convey. Music mogul Clive Davis fell in love with very young and impressionable talent — and was determined to mold her into the artist that “the masses” would readily embrace — which as a young Black woman ultimately meant her unbiased acceptance by White America.
Her rise to the top also demanded that she couldn’t evoke anything in her music that was “black-sounding” — and there was also the need to ensure that she didn’t fall into the trap of being labeled “the female James Brown” — by presenting her in the league of the likes of folk singer Joni Mitchell and the svelteness of Barbara Streisand.
Davis — who is featured in the film via old footage — definitely saw dollar signs and startling fame when he began work on his protégé— and even though his investment paid off — it came at too high a cost for Houston who suffered immense backlash for what most in her community deemed as “selling out.”
The heartbreaking clip from the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards that captures the singer being booed— proves that her mainstream popularity and unmatchable streak of number one hits wasn’t impressive enough to protect her from brutal criticism.
Houston expresses how she felt in that moment:
“It’s not a good feeling.” “You have to sit there, like, ‘Are they booing me?’ You have to be cordial and be smiling like everything’s OK. … You’re not black enough for them, or you’re not R&B enough. [When] you’re very pop, [they think] the white audience has taken you away.”
It certainly wasn’t a good feeling hearing the crowd turn on Houston — and later we hear about how that episode wrecked her for life and basically set the tone for the torturous years ahead.
We also learn more about— Robyn Crawford — the childhood friend who from what we gather — shared a very strong bond with Houston that lasted until the end of the 1999 tour in Germany. The friendship between the two women caused many to speculate about Houston’s sexuality. And even Cissy Houston admitted to Oprah back in 2013 that she wouldn’t have been comfortable with the possibility of her daughter’s bisexuality.
Crawford’s role in Houston’s life is chronicled through footage that captures her genuine affection and admiration for someone who was larger-than-life in the eyes of the world — but to Crawford — she was simply “Nippy.”
During the course of the film we watch how things take a sharp turn when Bobby Brown comes into the picture and the power play between the King of R&B and the woman who helped run his famous wife’s operations — places Houston the unenviable position having to pick sides.
But the real culprit of Houston’s downfall was her toxic marriage to Brown which she willingly walked away from in 2007. Unfortunately her struggle with drug addiction was a lifelong sentence — which based on her brother’s confession — began at the age of ten. The disease plagued her relentlessly and the enablers on her payroll only solidified the fact that she didn’t she stand a chance in hell of surviving her life.
There’s plenty more in Broomfield’s love letter to Houston — and most of it is hard to watch but there’s also pieces of sweetness — particularly in the early days of Houston’s career — where we see a young woman blossoming with the expectations that were dutifully realized — due to the voice that could make God cry. We also witness the early days of her love affair with Brown — before it was tainted by their dire shortcomings. And the motherly love showered on Bobbi Kristina is that much more poignant since we already know that it wasn’t nearly enough to save them both.
In the end — there’s no denying the impact Houston’s contribution had and will continue to have for generations to come. She was finally able to break away from the shell she was ensconced in and used her freedom to venture into the territory she was dying to conquer. 1998’s My Love Is Your Love — is a testament to what “doing it her way” was able to achieve.
Years later — her voice couldn’t handle the strain of her drug abuse and sadly — neither could her body. But what Broomfield manages to attain with his documentary is the ability for viewers to re-learn how to love Houston in a way that surpasses the temptation to judge or blame her for circumstances that were painfully out of her control.
This touching reunion couldn’t have come at a better time — and there’s no doubt that we will love her forever which is exactly the way it should be — for our sake.