Because she was a celebrity, it’s very easy to reduce Whitney Houston into the tropes that have been fortified by media coverage about her. Five years after her untimely death, Houston is often remembered either as a vilified drug addict, or one of the greatest Black female singers of our time who was victimized by drugs and those around her. But Houston was human. And her life was guided by the same things that rule all of our lives: her morals, values, and a web of personal relationships. Houston was a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a best friend. According to a new Showtime Documentary Films project about the late star, her willingness — and sometimes unwillingness — to take on these roles played a huge part in both her life, and her death.
Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal directed the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday evening. Dolezal worked with Houston for over a decade, documenting her life as a rising pop star. Together, Dolezal and Broomfield compiled archival footage — some of which has never been seen — and filmed interviews with former colleagues and friends of the late singer. The final product is a behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of a pop culture icon. But more importantly, it is an intimate glimpse into how personal relationships with those around her fueled Houston's highs and lows.
For those of us who are too young to have appreciated Houston’s golden era, we're most familiar with her tumultuous marriage to R & B singer Bobby Brown. Prior to their 2007 divorce, Houston and Brown — with their daughter Bobbi Kristina — represented the nuclear unit that so many of us have been taught is the only right way to have a family. Many people — especially women — are taught that building the relationships that lead to such an arrangement should be our top priority. (See: this speech on feminism from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) Whitney Houston was no exception.
Before she and Brown were officially a thing, rumors swirled that Houston was wrapped up in an intimate affair with her childhood best friend, Robyn. As is often the case with high-profile single women who keep close female friends around — Oprah and Gayle have side-eyed by the public, and even Rihanna and her bestie Melissa Forde have been the topic of lesbian rumors — Houston’s friendship with Crawford raised suspicions about the singer’s sexuality. LGBTQ visibility and acceptance were not what they are today. A lesbian affair threatened the singer’s image. Even Houston’s mother, who is staunchly religious, wanted Crawford out of Houston’s life. And when Houston and Brown finally married, fights between him and Crawford were a regular part of the group’s life on the road. Apparently, Brown was jealous that Houston could love someone, even platonically, as much as she loved him.
While Whitney: Can I Be Me alludes that a romantic relationship between Houston and Crawford may have existed, they stress that Crawford was one of the most important people in her life. She was committed to Houston getting help for her addiction and taking care of her body. When I asked Dolezal what he thought of their relationship, he told me that “Robyn was probably the only person I met who completely understood Whitney and what she was about.” He said “Whitney trusted Robyn 100%” and that “she was her confidante.” He also knew how hard it was for Robyn to part ways with her friend when tension with Brown got to be too much. “Robyn did a great job in stepping back,” Dolezal insists, even though he knew what it would mean for her famous friend. When Robyn told him about her departure, he knew that it was going to be “very hard” for Houston.
Friendship is one of the very strong guiding principles in my life. I don’t want to imagine where I would be without the bond that my best friend and I share. That a culture of fragile masculinity and homophobia took that away from Houston is heartbreaking. One of the strongest lessons I took from Houston’s story is to never doubt the power of female friendship.