A Whitney Houston Documentary Focuses on the Whitewashing of Black Singers

Whitney Houston lived her entire life in the limelight. Everything she did turned into tabloid fodder: her rumored bisexuality, codependency with Bobby Brown, drug use, and even lack of “blackness.” Now, a new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, seeks to tell the whole story. The movie looks at society’s responsibility for both her rise and her ultimate demise. Using exclusive and intimate footage, including an intimate look at her fraught relationship with Bobby Brown, the self-proclaimed “original bad boy of R&B,” we learn that from a young age Houston was groomed to be a bubbly public figure, appealing to a white audience.

In Can I Be Me, we see the years of pressure on Houston from family and industry leaders to portray herself as “white” in order to be a successful; we see how Houston became so alienated from the black community that she was booed at the Soul Train awards in 1989. In the end, the only people she felt she could truly “be me” with were a few members of her inner circle, including Bobby Brown’s family, and only in private. So, the film argues, it wasn’t just her battle with drugs and fame, but her public persona—so meticulously crafted by her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and the legendary Clive Davis—that left little little room for “the real Whitney.” There’s much more to the story that doesn’t fit into the narrative of a 105-minute documentary, but according to Whitney: Can I Be Me, that’s what really lead to her premature end.

Before the film’s premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down with director Nick Broomfield and legendary music industry filmmaker Rudi Dolezal—who famously worked with The Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie, Miles Davis and many more artists throughout his illustrious career—to talk about the Whitney Houston’s life on an intimate level.

Noisey: How did this film first begin?
Rudi Dolezal: I’ve been working with Whitney since the first album of hers. Around 1999, when I finished my film Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, she talked to me and said, “I want a film like this about me.” I was a young director, and, of course, very ambitious. I was like “we can start tomorrow!” Then I followed her all her European tour every day, every concert, backstage, frontstage. I told her the thing why she liked my films was because those people gave me complete access. We discuss afterwards if some scenes are too private or if she doesn’t look good or if she doesn’t want that in the film. Lots of people have been trying to get my footage, including the very honorable Clive Davis and NBC or the company of Oprah Winfrey, Harpo. I’ve always said no, because I’m not an agency. I’m not selling footage. Then I saw what Nick was planning and had a filmmaker-to-filmmaker discussion, not a business discussion. I thought it was interesting, because it was two filmmakers coming from different sides, but actually had the same idea telling the truth, but still presenting her so when you go out, you still love her.

So what happened in 1990 that ended what would have been your original film?
Dolezal: It ended because right after [the tour], the Academy Awards happened and she was sent home for not being able to sing her own song. I said to her, “we have to address it,” because I never saw her taking drugs and we never addressed it in any of the interviews. She was in denial and wouldn’t talk about rocks. Then I said, “well then let’s put the footage into the archive and wait until something comes up where we use it.” I feel like the film wasn’t just about Whitney, but about a lot of problems within the music industry in regards to the way they whitewashed black musicians. Can you talk more about that part of her story?

Nick Broomfield: She symbolized so many things. What you described was one of the main ones. Here was the first black crossover artist who had to be presented in a certain way to a white audience to make her acceptable. That had some enormous repercussions in her life with her own feeling of who she was. I think it’s also a story about those times, which was the early 80s. Not only on a sexual level — her own sexuality — but also her vulnerability as a young black very talented artist who had to make enormous sacrifices to play this role that I think became increasingly hard for her to play. Then the whole world condemned her for falling to pieces in a completely un-generous, un-understanding way. So I hope in the film, that there’s a slight rewriting of history

Rudi, did you ever talk to Whitney about how the music industry pressured her to be more “white”?
Dolezal: I don’t think she was aware of that, to be honest. She always wanted to sing. That was her main thing to do. She wanted to be on stage. She trusted people who were helping her. This was her mother, her father in the beginning, and, of course, Clive Davis. She was a very private person. At home, she had a very limited people in her inner circle that were even coming and seeing her when she was not on tour or on television. She was very funny and very intelligent and very charming and a very winning person when there was no pressure. This comes out those backstage scenes.

The film shows her relationship with Bobby Brown, and how it wasn’t necessarily the healthiest relationship. When you were filming that intimate footage, did you ever see their co-dependence?
Dolezal: What I can tell you very simply is I’m sure they loved each other deeply. I saw that every moment. She loved him, and he loved her. Don’t forget Bobby Brown was a superstar when she decided to be with him. So I think the problem with any — excuse me — male is when suddenly your star factor goes down and your wife’s goes up… for example, he always insisted that he had to sing a song in her concert. I think that was a little bit out of line. I would have never suggested. It was her moment. But Bobby Brown was not the bad guy who brought her down the wrong route. That I can tell you.

Lead image c/o SHOWTIME.

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