On its surface Whitney: Can I Be Me, which screens this weekend at the Siskel Center as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival, is a documentary about pop star Whitney Houston, the phenomenally talented singer whose career was cut short at age 48 when, under the influence of a variety of drugs, she accidentally drowned in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2012. But for its first hour Whitney employs Houston’s life story as the basis of a fascinating and complex examination of identity.
The details of Houston’s biography establish why she’s such an absorbing subject. Because of the success of her mother (the singer Cissy Houston) and first cousin (Dionne Warwick) Houston was never impoverished, but having grown up in Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, she was surrounded by people in poor black communities. Arista head Clive Davis, who prized her as one of his greatest discoveries, purposely tried to downplay her blackness in an attempt to appeal to white audiences. And though Houston had a nearly 20-year relationship and marriage with fellow pop star Bobby Brown, she secretly maintained a long romantic association with Robyn Crawford, her high school friend and manager.
What Whitney insinuates is that Houston’s downfall and death aren’t so much attributable to drug addiction as they are to her inability to reconcile so many conflicting aspects of her personality. And these incompatibilities were exacerbated by both Davis and Houston’s parents, who didn’t give her enough independence to determine the kind of career she wanted. In 1992 Houston costarred in The Bodyguard and heavily contributed to its soundtrack; both were enormously successful, elevating Houston to unimaginable fame. Yet Houston’s various identities—artistic, social, racial, and sexual—were unresolved and in chaos. During the opening credits the filmmakers put Can I Be Me in quotes, as if the question is rhetorical: Could Houston ever truly be herself? (Then again, can anyone?)
Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield codirected Whitney, and some people will likely recognize Broomfield from his documentaries Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), two movies that also explored the circumstances surrounding notorious celebrity deaths. But in those films Broomfield inserted himself into the narrative as a kind of investigator, whereas in Whitney he exhibits unusual restraint, never appearing on camera and forgoing conspiracy theories and excessive dramatization in favor of found footage, talking-head interviews, and narrative fluidity and nuance.
After the first hour Broomfield and Dolezal elect to focus on Houston’s substance abuse and the collapse of her relationships with Brown and Crawford, less interesting subjects that slow the documentary’s momentum. One wonders why the filmmakers didn’t keep trying to solve the nature of Houston’s identity—with such a complicated life, perhaps they could only get so far. v