It is 1990, and Whitney Houston is in a hotel room with her mother. She is in her twenties, a sprightly pop star with lungs of gold. She has already made hits of “The Greatest Love of All,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”—all those ’80s classics. She hasn’t started dating Bobby Brown yet, and she’s still years away from appearing on television visibly high, as she did when Diane Sawyer interviewed her in 2002. Houston leans back on the hotel couch and grimaces. “Paula Abdul ain’t shit,” she says. “That girl is singing off-key on the record.” It’s downright surreal witnessing young Whitney, who was in this early part of her career picture-perfect and hyper-competent at all times, lapse into vulnerability. The moment, which occurs in a new documentary, Whitney, reminds you how thickly the varnish of purity was painted over the fledgling star, how much was covered up. She was powdered in pink eyeshadow, touted as the happy child of happy parents, and trained to smile wide onscreen. Cissy Houston reminds her daughter that she has a gift from God that Abdul will never have, and the young woman snuggles into her mom’s arms.
There are now two Whitney Houston documentaries. The first, Whitney: Can I Be Me?, came out last year. The work of Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney), that movie—which was unauthorized—splices together archival footage with interviews of Houston’s family, friends, and entourage. It is straightforward about her drug abuse, and about the control exerted over her by her family and production team. Her brothers recall that they and Houston did drugs starting around the age of 10. Old colleagues of her producer, Clive Davis, recall that he deliberately marketed her to white listeners. Most controversially, perhaps, the movie confirms that Houston was romantically involved with Robyn Crawford, her “best friend,” a relationship that was discouraged by her homophobic family and production team while it lasted and hushed up after it was over.
Robyn Crawford is not a household name, but—as Broomfield’s documentary makes abundantly clear—her romance and close friendship with Houston was a defining feature of the singer’s adult life. A high school contemporary of Houston’s brothers, Crawford moved in with the singer when the two were in their late teens. She was maid of honor at Houston’s 1994 wedding to Bobby Brown. Brown has admitted that he “knew” that the two women were together, though it’s unclear when and how friendship became romance and vice versa. Brown recently told People that “if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today.” (He skims over the fact that Crawford left Houston after giving her a “him or me” ultimatum in 2000.)
In a 1997 interview on NBC, Houston denied being in a relationship with Crawford. When Katie Couric probed her for details, Houston wasn’t forthcoming. “She’s a damn good basketball player,” she said of Crawford. “She can beat any guy there is.” For her part, the only time Crawford has spoken publicly of Houston was in an obituary for Esquire. In the article, she described Houston’s beauty, how she missed her laughter. “Houston’s hit ‘I Will Always Love You,’” Crawford wrote, “was the absolute pinnacle of what she could do, of what anyone could do—and then she had to keep on doing it.”
The lovers did not have a smooth go of it. In the unauthorized documentary, Oprah Winfrey speaks to Houston’s mother, Cissy, herself a famous and accomplished singer. “Would it have bothered you if your daughter Whitney was gay?” Winfrey asks. “Absolutely,” Cissy responds.
The new film, by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), is the estate’s implicit riposte to the first. Clive Davis himself appears to say glowing things about Whitney that have nothing to do with race. Cousins, brothers, Whitney’s mother: They all pop up to set the record straight. Only six years after Whitney left this world, her legacy is already trapped in the same reputation tennis that she dealt with in life, and her family are still speaking for her.
And the record is set “straight” here in one particular way. In this movie, we hear nothing from Crawford herself, but several very nasty things about her from Houston’s brother Gary Garland-Houston, who toured with Whitney as her back-up dancer, did drugs with her, and “protected” her. Garland-Houston twists up his face at the idea of his sister and another woman. That Whitney grew up in a deeply homophobic milieu and also had to keep secret her relationship with a woman who, the documentary must admit, cared for her well, is very sad.
Crawford’s sexual orientation is only addressed as a way of separating her from Houston. “I knew what she was,” Garland-Houston says of Crawford. “I knew she was something that I didn’t want my sister to be involved with.” He calls her evil, wicked. In this movie—though not in the previous one—we hear the Houston clan confirm that they paid a man to break Crawford’s legs. (He went to the tabloids instead.)
If there was some kind of deal cut over access, Macdonald got a big payoff for his concession. Garland-Houston also corroborates a startling claim about Houston’s childhood. Mary Jones worked as Houston’s assistant for many years, and was the last person to see her alive. In the documentary, she confirms the rumor that Whitney and Gary were molested as children by Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister and a well-known singer in her own right. Garland-Houston verifies that he was molested by a woman. After this revelation the documentary shows black-and-white television footage of Dee Dee singing, looking straight into the camera. This is the movie’s “aha” moment, the admission that is meant to explain exactly how and why the singer became the sort of person who would talk shit about Paula Abdul.
Repressed queer Whitney; abused Whitney; a Whitney who was controlled by a jealous husband; Whitney who was sued by her father: The documentaries present the singer as pure victim. Whatever the accuracy of the portrayal, it’s a lousy thing to do to somebody who can’t speak back. In the Manhattan theater where I watched the Macdonald film on a Monday afternoon, the scene was downright glum. A few scattered fans and I watched a child grow up, succeed, destroy her voice with drugs, then die. Every now and again somebody sobbed.
This tussle over the life and pain of Whitney Houston, barely six years dead, makes both films about her feel more like lawsuits than elegies. Cissy Houston has retracted her approval for the second movie. In a statement to People co-authored by Dionne Warwick, she wrote, “We cannot…overstate the shock and horror we feel and the difficulty we have believing that my niece Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister) molested two of my three children.” Even if the allegations are true, Cissy writes, “I do not believe she would have wanted it to be revealed for the first time to thousands, maybe millions of people in a film.” Unpleasant though Cissy comes off at times, she has a point.
How uneasy should we feel about the voyeuristic thrill we get from watching intimate scenes in the lives of the famous? Houston retained her privacy in life, so the ambiguous pleasure of accessing her secrets—or what seem to be her secrets—after her death is even greater. A woman in the theater with me stood up as we watched Houston sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991. In that moment, Houston resembled a national monument or a state park more than a human being, I realized. Her voice is a symbol of Americanness; it’s at home among the many God-given natural phenomena of which this country can boast. Watching Houston be mean about Paula Abdul is like hearing the Lincoln Memorial ask you for the time. The contrast—between the greatness of the singer and the pettiness of her comment, between the sublime and the trivial—reminds us not that she was human like the rest of us, but that she wasn’t.
The problem with Whitney (2018) is the same one that hampered Whitney: Can I Be Me? (2017). The documentary form turns human life, with all its random foibles and day-to-day ordinariness, into a story. The only standard to which we can hold the genre is honesty, and this film—in its neglect of Robyn Crawford, in particular—is less honest than its predecessor. But both films rob the subject of her own voice. She speaks, of course, yet what she says is bent in service of a certain narrative. In the newer movie, she’s become a symbol of the damage wrought by child abuse. The last time around, the moral was about the toll of drugs and homophobia.
In the end, neither the authorized nor the unauthorized version of Houston’s life has a greater claim to veracity. The big screen demands that the “truth” become partial, in order to make the story work. An authorized documentary has the wider level of access, but is more likely to be manipulated by the interested parties. An unauthorized documentary might be wilder in its claims, but is by the same token freer to speak the facts. Which should we trust?
The answer is both and neither. We get closest to reality by adding the stories together, but it doesn’t follow that still more documentaries would better approximate a life’s full complexity. And even the most exhaustive account of what happened when and who was there would lack a certain fundamental element. Whitney Houston sang bang on key, every single time. The most genuine account of her life is her art. That’s the story she told her fans, and it’s the only version we can call the truth.