- 16 Jun 17
Glib answers detract from tragic rise and fall story of Whitney Houston.
Post-mortem documentaries about famous, troubled women always run the risk of feeling exploitative and voyeuristic. They can feel particularly distasteful when the media and public delighted in the woman’s struggles while she was alive, only to take on a tone of woe-begotten, self-serving pseudo empathy. In Nick Broomfield’s bio-doc about Whitney Houston, haunting footage of the vulnerable singer does prove heart-wrenching, but glib generalisations and glaring omissions still smack of cynicism.
Along with co-director Rudi Dolezal, who provides footage from his unfinished 1999 tour documentary about Houston, Broomfield uses interviews with Houston’s acquaintances (not key players) as well as archival footage to explore the chasm between her career success and personal struggles. There are familiar and unexamined tropes here, such as her “ghetto” upbringing, spiralling drug addiction, and her fatal attraction to Bobby Brown – whose 2003 arrest for physically assaulting her goes unmentioned, in a somewhat repugnant act of pandering. Flimsy, tabloid-esque assertions like “She died of a broken heart” go uninterrogated as Broomfield settles for easy answers.
But there are occasional glimmers of devastating insight. Shocking footage of Houston being booed at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 for “selling out” and making white-pleasing pop music shows the racial tensions she was forced to answer to, while her shame regarding her sexuality also illustrates that fame couldn’t protect her from familial pressure and respectability politics. The film’s title, Can I Be Me?, is a quote from Houston, who was clearly desperate to be seen in all of her complicated, multi-faceted, searching glory. The film occasionally lets us do that – but only when Broomfield gets out of the way.