"Can I be me?" That's the question Whitney Houston apparently posed to close friends and confidantes throughout her all-too-short life. It's something you could imagine a star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta saying: Can I be me? Can I be real? Can I be honest? On the surface, it reads like an easy excuse for inappropriate behavior.
The new Showtime documentary Whitney. "Can I Be Me," now playing the Tribeca Film Festival, proves this question to be anything but a shallow catchphrase, however. If anything, it was a young woman's cry for help as she battled drug addiction and a deep conflict with her own identity. As directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, this documentary answers — albeit in somewhat haphazard fashion — the late singer's persistent question with a resounding and heartbreaking "no." No, Houston could not be herself. But if she had been able to, perhaps she'd still be alive.
Whitney. "Can I Be Me" is something of a mixed bag, thanks to its unconventional direction. Most of the concert footage in the film comes from Dolezal's incomplete documentary about Houston's 1999 world tour. This forms the backbone of the film, as it constantly flashes back and forth between the tour and historical information about Houston's life.
It's stunning to watch the singer at such a pivotal moment in her life, when her connection with husband Bobby Brown became more destructive and she lost touch with her longtime closest ally, Robyn Crawford. It is with Crawford that Broomfield's intention most clearly lies: He takes Brown's claim that Crawford and Houston were lovers and runs with it, portraying Houston as a queer woman trapped in a time and family that rejected anything besides heterosexuality.
It's really quite remarkable to watch the film drag the Houston/Crawford affair out of the tabloids and into this canonical story of Houston's life. Many of the interviews with Houston's closest associates all but rubber stamp Houston and Crawford's romance as being true. (Interestingly, before the film's world premiere at Tribeca, Broomfield told the crowd there had been some legal issues threatening the film as of less than three hours before its premiere.)
Suddenly, Houston's story becomes not just about a singer besieged by too many outside influences and a painful addiction, but about a woman who simply was not allowed to be herself.
The film blames several culprits for Houston hiding her truth, including Brown, record producers and, using an especially damning bit of footage from a 2013 Oprah Winfrey interview, Houston's mother, Cissy Houston. (In short, Winfrey asks Cissy if she would have disapproved of her daughter being gay, and the answer is a painfully firm "yes.") The movie makes absolutely no bones about how much this affected Houston. On several occasions, interview subjects say Houston died of "a broken heart."
Ultimately, there are too many gaps in Whitney. "Can I Be Me" that prevent it from being a great documentary. Most frustratingly, the film practically sprints through the 2000s, a time that was of particular difficulty for Houston. She battled her drug addiction more openly than before, appeared on the reality TV show Being Bobby Brown and went through a public, messy divorce from Brown. Anything between her divorce in 2007 and her death in 2012 goes completely undiscussed.
But, credit to Broomfield and Dolezal, their combined footage does cohere into a compelling theory about Houston. She wasn't a woman haunted just by drugs, although those were obviously a significant factor. She was trapped within herself. It makes her tragic passing all the more painful.
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