[Opinion]: Whitney: Can I Be Me? - a moving portrait of the artist

Monday, 5 June: On Friday night, after seeing Whitney: Can I Be Me?, I came away feeling awe-stricken and a little disturbed. The film reminded me about the burden and responsibility that a talented woman carries on this earth. It showed all the nuance of Whitney Houston’s brilliance, and confirmed that everyone who has heard her music or seen her perform has been witness to something magnificent.

In the documentary, some of her songs play in the background as the film tells the story of who Whitney was (to herself and to others) and on the kind of life she fought to live, despite the influences of others.

For the most part, Whitney does not present any surprises. People already know that Whitney Houston had an amazing voice. People are aware that she struggled with drug addiction. People know about her tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown. What this film does is provide deeper context to Houston’s life, so that the viewer gains a new perspective on what they thought they knew.

Taking Houston’s 1999 World Tour as the point of departure, the film uses interviews from people close to her, along with behind-the-scenes footage, to tell the story. The film is less a recounting of Houston’s rise and fall, and more an intimate portrait of her as a woman negotiating issues of identity, family, love and purpose. Her purpose is clear throughout: she lived to give her love to those around her, and to share her talent. This is not to say Houston revelled in being a “diva”, as it is also evident from the footage and interviews with those who knew her and worked closely with her that she was a private person, a person who did not seek out the spotlight.

What struck me was how loyal Houston was to people she chose to love and keep around her. Aside from her immediate family, Houston also shared a bond and showed deep loyalty to her best friend, Robyn Crawford. Robyn and Whitney were inseparable. They understood each other and cared for each other in a way that no one else could match. The intensity of their bond is what confused and scared the people around them. This love – which, according to the documentary, was enduring and almost transcendent, different from that which exists between friends or even sisters – raised suspicions among outsiders. It also did not match the image and narrative that had been created around Houston. She was being presented as a superstar with wholesome family values – she could not be seen behaving like a deviant. The Whitney Houston that had been created by and belonged to the music business could not also be a woman who loves other women.

These scenes in the documentary made me think of how intimidated people in a heteronormative society are by the power of a woman’s love. Simply because they saw the deep love between the two women, people assumed something was wrong; they didn’t believe the bond should or could be sustained. They could not even entertain the idea of Robyn and Whitney being in a relationship, because it would be uncomfortable for them. It would disturb their narrow idea of the world.

On the other hand, seeing the story of Houston’s love for Bobby Brown in the documentary was interesting in that it was not shown so much in her own words or actions as in those of Brown himself. He spoke about her love and their relationship as being something that he “needed” to keep him “on the right path”. Hearing him say that made me think that he was placing the responsibility for their relationship working out on Houston, which is unfair. But he did not seem straight-out malicious (though he was definitely arrogant, an effect of being at the height of his career). There is also the fact of his being younger than Houston, and I think it is safe to say that his views on relationships were influenced by his age.  

When, in the background of a scene from one of the happier times in Houston and Brown’s relationship, All the Man That I Need played, I got chills. That is one of my favourite Whitney Houston songs, and while it might seem obvious that it was about Bobby Brown, to me it has always been a celebration of an imagined future partner who will be what I have waited for and deserve. But I digress.

In the documentary, the song was a way to emphasise how deeply Houston loved Brown, before changing pace to talk about some of the ways in which the two of them were very bad for each other.

Let this film tell it, Houston was always working. There are very few clips of her at home, resting, being with her family. Sure, her people were always around her, but everyone seemed to be perpetually in preparation: the next shoot, red carpet appearance or live performance was always around the corner. This reminded me of what an editor of mine once said: “we love our stars to death.” Houston’s talent is what the people around her latched onto, and those with unsavoury intentions pushed her to use it until there was almost nothing left in Houston to give.

How can a person who is surrounded by supporters get lost the way Houston did? The answer seems to lie in the way that her bodyguard (the very one who is portrayed by Kevin Costner in the iconic film, The Bodyguard) was relieved of his duties as soon as he pointed out that Houston (who was at a period where she was in the throes of her addiction) needed help.  

Whoever was making the decisions (because the documentary makes it clear that Houston did not always have the final say in her own affairs) chose not to take anyone’s advice about how to take care of Houston.

Perhaps because they didn’t think Houston’s addiction was a big deal, or they didn’t believe that she could be a star without getting involved in some dark things, they left her to go further and further down that path.

Of course Houston (though her exercise of that agency had limits), but it is also true that sometimes people need to be saved from themselves.

There will always be speculation about what someone should have or could have done to prevent (or at least delay) their demise, but the truth is no one can predict or control how someone else lives their life.
In this case, I find myself feeling sad that, despite how she gave and gave of herself, Whitney Houston ultimately died alone, in a hotel room.

Towards the end of the documentary, there is an interview clip that has stayed with me. When asked how she would like to be remembered, Houston quipped that it didn’t matter what she wanted, because people were going to say and write what they wanted. But the interviewer pushed for an answer, and Houston said she would like to be remembered “as someone who really cared”.

After seeing the film, I believe that’s exactly who she was: someone who cared about other people and wanted everyone to be okay. How many of her people returned that love as fiercely?


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