Exploring Whitney Houston’s Privileged Upbringing and Troubling Death

Documentary

by: Nadine Matthews Special to the AFRO
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About ten minutes into Showtime’s upcoming documentary “Whitney: Can I Be Me”, Houston’s two older brothers, Michael and Gary are shown standing in the backyard of the family’s modest two-story Cape-style former home in East Orange, N.J. Michael wears a baseball cap set defiantly at an angle. Gary’s newsboy hat is perched unassumingly atop his head. They both sport oversized T-shirts that don’t quite succeed in disguising the paunch of middle-age and indulgent living.

Superstar singer Whitney Houston’s life and times are dissected in the new Showtime documentary, ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me.’ (Courtesy photo)

They could be anybody’s brothers or uncles or cousins reminiscing about sneaking in through their little sister’s bedroom window after missing curfew or recalling the peculiarities of being the first Black family to move into the area. Except of course, they’re not. They are the older siblings of America’s first Black pop princess. This is the way observers often describe the singer, model and actress who famously, yet in the most cliche of ways, died from a drug overdose in the bathtub of a posh hotel room of the Beverly Hilton February 2012.

There is no questioning director Rudi Dolezal’s admiration for the preternaturally beautiful and talented songstress. Dolezal told the AFRO, “Whitney Houston to me is and was one of the greatest voices in pop culture of all time by all standards. I saw her in at least fifty concerts that I filmed with both small camera crews and big camera crews singing her heart out for the people. She was a passionate artist on stage and the stage was her home.”

In 1999 Houston, impressed with Dolezal’s Emmy nominated documentary about rock musician Freddie Mercury, commissioned him to do one about her. He immediately began shooting footage of all aspects of her life. He told her at the time, “The Rolling Stones, Queen, everything happened because they let me film everything. Afterward we decide if it’s too private, doesn’t look great or it’s too stupid.” Houston gave him unprecedented access to her life.

The resulting film is an intimate collection of still images and video documenting Houston’s childhood through her rise to stardom and ultimate troubled final years. There are interviews with the people who spent the most time with her. We see twelve year-old Whitney singing in church bedecked in simple pearl earrings and a white choir robe that, in combination with her otherworldly voice and poise brings to mind imagery of angels.

Footage of a more grown-up nineteen year-old Whitney in her first TV appearance highlights the full grace and power of her voice. It is also here that we witness much of what it was about Whitney that appealed to mainstream audiences. Fresh-faced with caramel colored skin, perfectly proportionate features, and lithe frame, she made mainstream audiences comfortable with having her voice as the soundtrack to their lives.

A number of record industry executives had as their goal the creation of a Black crossover artist- one who would appeal to the Black working class as well as to White pop music consumers. It may be argued that Diana Ross achieved this in the seventies but there is no doubt record producer Clive Davis did so with Houston did in the mid-eighties.

In “Whitney: Can I Be Me”, race and class can intersect in a arring manner. Dolezal makes much of the fact that Houston was born in Newark, N.J. as if geography was fate. There are visuals are of the 1967 Newark uprisings. It is implied that Herculean efforts went into making Houston into the “princess of pop” that the world came to know her as.

“Clive Davis had tried to have a very successful crossover artist who would appeal to a mass White audience. He had worked on that for years. And then Whitney came along. You could create this pop princess, this American princess and her background from Newark and all of that was kind of put under the carpet,” Dolezal said. Besides her drug use, which affects people from all walks of life, we don’t see exactly what, if anything else, was “put under the carpet”.

In this respect, Dolezal misses the mark. That somehow her difficulties with drugs or her conflict over the type of music she was making were inevitable because of where she was born and raised is an oversimplification. Though true her image was carefully cultivated, that is true of many music artists and was likely not the root of her problems.

Though she came from rather humble beginnings, the singer who was family to both vocal stylist Dionne Warwick and opera singer Leontyne Price, was the progeny of fiercely ambitious and upwardly mobile Cissy and John Houston. There is no evidence of Houston rejected that upbringing.

The film inexplicably ignores a much more likely explanation for private-school educated Houston’s eventual troubles. Following the moment in the childhood backyard, Whitney’s brother Michael states in voiceover that as kids he and Whitney, “Did everything together, I taught her to drive.” When the subject approaches her initiation into drug use, he slips suspiciously into the second person saying, “Everything you do together growing up and when you try drugs you do that together too.”

Clearly, he continues to have issues accepting his culpability in the chemical addiction that led to her demise. Further, Houston’s other older brother Gary, a former NBA player, admits in the film that he began using heroin at the age of ten. Both Michael and Gary continue to have well-publicized battles with drugs. “Whitney: Can I Be Me” successfully puts to rest the notion that Houston’s husband of 14 years, singer Bobby Brown was responsible for her downward and ultimately fatal spiral.

Rather than existential conflict about the type of music she should be singing or that she had to maintain a certain image, the more likely cause of Houston’s issues with drugs would have to do with her being introduced to it by her brothers, gaining the type of fame and wealth that made acquiring drugs easy, as well as the psychological and practical day to pressures of being a world-renowned pop star with a large group of people whose livelihoods depend on your ability to work at full capacity over long stretches of time.

There also seems to be no doubt that Houston was a “pleaser” who bravely endured Brown’s prolific infidelities and periodic emotional and physical abuse, and did not fully accept her bisexuality. She self-medicated to mask those feelings. When asked if he believed Houston had in fact had a relationship with her friend and longtime creative director Robyn Crawford Dolezal’s answer was, “Is the pope Catholic?”

Whitney: Can I Be Me premieres on Showtime Aug. 25.

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