In less than a year, moviegoers have been presented with two different Whitney Houston films: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s Whitney: Can I Be Me last fall, and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney this month. Arriving five years after the music icon’s death in 2012, the former looks at her career and personal life, specifically examining Houston’s anxieties around her own race and sexuality. It was, notably, made without the blessing of Houston’s estate (Broomfield said in an interview that the estate was “aggressive and sent emails to people telling them not to take part”). Whitney, meanwhile, was completed with the cooperation of her family and other important figures in her life. It has similar ambitions as Can I Be Me, also attempting to untangle Houston the person from Houston the persona—sometimes, as critics have pointed out, at the expense of celebrating her musical genius.
This revisiting of Houston’s legacy comes at a time when the artist’s presence still resonates throughout pop culture. Earlier this year, the gay coming-of-age movie Love, Simon featured Houston’s music in a moving dance sequence. On a more painful note, Kanye West attracted criticism in May for his decision to use a photo of Houston’s bathroom—filthy with signs of apparent drug use—on the cover of a new Pusha T album he had produced. The recent documentaries shed new light on many of the particulars of Houston’s life and death: her upbringing in the church, her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown, her shortcomings as a parent. But at a moment when musicians, generally, have greater control than before over the production and distribution of their work, the films also consider the immense pressures Houston navigated in order to appeal to a white mainstream—pressures still faced today by black and queer artists seen as crossover pop acts.