‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ Isn’t Just A Celeb Doco, It’s A Case Study Of Racism In Music

Whitney Houston was “from the hood [but] white America wanted to present her as a princess".

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This review is part of a wrap from Sydney Film Festival 2017. Read more here.

British filmmaker Nick Broomfield is known as something of a muckraker: that type of doco vulture who cuts together films about the rich and deceased from their tabloid detritus. He’s the man behind Kurt & Courtney (1998), Biggie & Tupac (2002) and over 20 more films in a similar vein.

After her death in 2012 at age 46, pop superstar Whitney Houston rose as the perfect new target for this kind of approach, with a toxic marriage to dastardly rapper Bobby Brown, a relationship with her dearest friend Robyn that violated her religious conservatism, a parasitic family on her payroll, and a publicly recorded blackhole of drug abuse.

Produced by Showtime, Whitney: Can I Be Me is in essence a pretty involving US cable TV doco, structured around previously unaired footage from a crew trailing what became Whitney’s last successful world tour in 1999, as well as new interviews with her siblings, creepy bodyguard, back-up singers and musicians. What lifts it from the usual half-hagiography/half-takedown, tell-all-doco-made-from-a-distance is its analysis of racism within the US music industry.

Broomfield’s thesis — from the words of one of his interviewees — is that although Whitney was “from the hood; white America wanted to present her as a princess”. Columbia Records exec Clive Davis didn’t want a female James Brown, he wanted the next Barbra Streisand, and he marketed her to a white mass audience, forbade any gospel or R&B inflections in her tracks and erased the hood from Whitney’s persona.

To a black audience, Whitney had sold out. But, as a deliberate strategy, the whitewashing worked.

The doco’s backstage footage shows an expressive, emphatic, black woman; while in her formal interviews, her body language and way of speaking drops back toward the more contained, acceptable figure of a pop starlet. To a black audience, Whitney had sold out. But, as a deliberate strategy, the whitewashing worked: her debut album sold 25 million records.

Whitney materialises as a deeply moral but mouldable character, whose sense of self was distorted by a lifetime of fame and wealth and all the “paranoia”, as she says, that goes with that. By the film’s second half, the cloud of sadness around her breaks in an entirely matter of fact way. There’s no narrative momentum that builds toward her death; it just kind of happens.

Perhaps that’s the right storytelling decision: to just let her gradually slide toward something as banal and stupid and terrible as falling into a bath and drowning while high. “I know Whitney Houston died of a broken heart,” says one of the interviewees. From the vision presented in Broomfield’s doco, that diagnosis seems not just possible, but likely.

Whitney: Can I Be Me is in select cinemas now.

Lauren Carroll Harris has been published in Guardian Australia, Metro and Meanjin. She tweets from @LCarrollHarris.