“Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.’” This was Whitney Houston, reflecting on the first significant setback of her career, when she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. By that stage, she had already won 11 American Music Awards, two Grammys, achieved the biggest-selling debut album by a female artist in history and a record-breaking seven consecutive US No 1 singles. But, despite all this success, some black radio stations refused to play her records, and opponents, including the Rev Al Sharpton, labelled her “Whitey” Houston. For some, she was simply Not Black Enough.
Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary, Whitney, doesn’t suggest insufficient blackness as a contributing factor in Houston’s tragic death in 2012. It points the finger more at her family, revealing her childhood sexual abuse (allegedly by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick) and scrolling through a gallery of money-grubbing, vicariously ambitious, gravy train-riding relatives. But Nick Broomfield’s earlier documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, does locate Houston’s demise specifically in her conflicted racial and sexual identity, starting with that hurtful night at the Soul Train Awards. “I don’t think she ever recovered from it,” says her saxophonist Kirk Whalum in Broomfield’s documentary. “It was one of those boxes that was checked, that when she ultimately perished it was because of those boxes.”