Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland) did not set out to break news with Whitney, his heart-wrenching documentary about Whitney Houston that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday. He wanted to scrub off the sad, tabloid narrative that debased the singers reputation in her final, drug-addicted years, to show how one of the greatest vocal talents of the 20th century—a sweet girl from Newark, New Jersey—self-destructed and died in 2012 at the age of 48 under tragic circumstances. But after watching hundreds of hours of private Houston footage—taken at home, on tour, and backstage—Macdonald began to be haunted by a sad suspicion.
“There was something very disturbed about her, because she was never comfortable in her own skin,” Macdonald told Vanity Fair on Wednesday. “She seemed kind of asexual in a strange way. She was a beautiful woman, but she was never particularly sexy. Ive seen and done some filming with people who have suffered childhood sexual abuse, and there was just something about her manner that was reminiscent to me of that sort of shrinking—a lack of comfort in her own physicality that felt, maybe that is what it was.” Macdonald wasnt positive that his hunch was right—but “shortly after thinking that, someone did tell me off the record about being told by Whitney about being abused, and it being one of the central reasons behind her self-torture. It took awhile for anyone to go on record about it, and eventually the family did.”
The bombshell is dropped about three-quarters of the way through Whitney—that both Houston and her half-brother, Gary, were allegedly molested as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of Dionne Warwick and the niece of Houstons mother, Cissy Houston, who died in 2008. Dee Dee and Dionne performed together as the Gospelaires in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes singing with Cissys gospel group, the Drinkard Singers. Dee Dee went on to sing backup for Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, and be nominated for two Grammy Awards. Cissy also sang backup for Franklin, in addition to Elvis Presley. When she was on tour, Cissy left Whitney, Gary, and their brother Michael for extended periods of time with relatives.
Asked about what led to his own addiction issues in the film, Gary tells Macdonald, “Being a child—being seven, eight, nine years old—and being molested by a female family member of mine. My mother and father were gone a lot, so we stayed with a lot of different people . . . four, five different families who took care of us.”
It wasnt until two weeks before locking the edit on the documentary that Macdonald got on-the-record confirmation that Houston had also been abused.
“I finally managed to persuade Mary Jones, who was Whitneys longtime assistant and probably knew her in her last years more than anybody, to talk [on-camera],” Macdonald said. “She talks about what Whitney felt and what effect it had on her. So we changed the whole cut at the very last minute. It was kind of a detective story to get that piece of information, which changed how I felt about Whitney and how I felt about the story.”
Macdonald re-edited the entire film to build to that revelation. In Joness emotional interview, she recalls a conversation she had with the late singer, during which Jones revealed that her sister had been molested as a child.
“[Houston] looked at me and said, Mary, I was molested at a young age too. But it wasnt by a man—it was a woman,” recalls Jones in the film. “She had tears in her eyes. She says, Mommy dont know the things we went through. I said, Have you ever told your mother? She says, No. I said, Well, maybe you need to tell her. She said, No, my mother would hurt somebody if I told her who it was. She just had tears rolling down her face, and I just hugged her. I said, One day when you get the nerve, you need to tell your mother. It will lift the burden off you.”
Houston never spoke publicly about the alleged abuse—but, as Macdonald uncovers, she did drop clues about it. Asked in a press interview about what makes her angry, Houston responds with sudden, palpable rage: “Child abuse makes me angry . . . I hate to see kids . . . it bothers me that children, who are helpless, who depend on adults for security and love, it just bothers me. It makes me angry.” Houston also made a point to bring her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, on all of her international tours, rather than leave her daughter at home. She also urged Jones to bring her daughter along with them on trips.
Asked why Houston never told her mother about the alleged abuse, Jones says, “I think she was ashamed . . . she used to say, I wonder if I did something to make [Dee Dee] think I wanted her. I said, Stop. A predator is a predator is a predator. If Cissy had known, she would have done something about it, because Cissy loves her children.”
Macdonald said that Cissy Houston has been informed that the accusation is made in the documentary: “Cissy knows. She was told, and very upset. I think she will watch the film at some stage, but its obviously up to her when she wants to do that.”
Macdonald also said that Pat Houston—Whitneys former sister-in-law, manager, and estate executor, who is interviewed in the film—has told Dionne Warwick about the allegations.
“She has been informed. She hasnt wanted to see the film . . . But very much myself and everyone else, we all dont want her to suffer by the actions of her family. Any negative feelings toward her would be completely wrong. She had nothing to do with it. She knew nothing about it. We definitely dont want any repercussions for her.”
Macdonald had not been particularly interested in making a documentary about Houston until speaking to Houstons agent Nicole David, who represented Houston from 1986 until Houston died in 2012.
“She knew Whitney probably better than anybody outside of her family. And she said to me, The thing is, I loved her so much, but I still dont understand why what happened happened to her family. That was the key for me. Because, I thought, thats so interesting she had such devotion and love for this woman, yet she never felt like she understood her. So there was a mystery there. And I approached the film like a mystery. Who was she? Why did she end up as she ended up? And how can we access her, when she never wrote any diaries? Her interviews are almost entirely her avoiding the subject. All you have is the purity of her voice, and the beauty of her voice, and the emotion transmitted by the voice in a nonverbal way. One of the biggest puzzles, for me, were those final years of her life. It seemed like there was some storyline that the public didnt really know. Her involvement with Bobby Brown, her daughter. There were rumors of substance abuse.”
“I initially thought the story was maybe about her sexuality—that she was somebody who was not able to be gay [publicly],” said MacDonald, referring to the romantic relationship Houston allegedly had with her longtime best friend and employee Robyn Crawford—a coupling that is confirmed in the documentary by several people who describe Houstons sexuality as “fluid.” Macdonald e-mailed with Crawford, who toyed with the idea of taking part in the film but ultimately decided not to.
“I realized that actually is not the story,” said MacDonald. “[Houston] only had, as far as Im aware, one proper homosexual relationship, with Robyn Crawford, which people know about. I think that only lasted quite a short time. I found some documentation that proves, without a doubt, that it was a romantic relationship between them . . . The real story, as I dug deeper, had to do with her family, and to do with race, I suppose, and her childhood.”
Macdonalds investigation felt, at times, like he was not making much headway—even though Pat Houston provided Macdonald with access, Whitneys archives, and final cut on the film. Macdonald said that, in his two-decade career, he has never encountered as much “lying and obfuscation” as he did while speaking to Whitneys circle of associates.
“So many people I spoke to were just untruthful to me, just bullshitting. I never experienced that in any documentary before. And I had to interview many more people, many more times than I ever have on anything else, in order to try and still get some bit of truth.”
The family ultimately opened up to Macdonald, in part, he thinks, because Houston destroyed her reputation before she died. “What are you protecting anymore? This film hopefully kind of forgives [Houston] for this extraordinary self-destruction and destruction of her daughters experience, and hopefully helps people understand her in a different [light]. I think this is something that Pat Houston agrees with—that we hope, in the end, this really helps Whitney.”
MacDonalds film examines the fraught relationship Whitney had with Cissy, a professional singer who realized early on how incredible her daughters talent was. Having worked around stars for decades, Cissy groomed her daughter extensively to become the legend she became—teaching her to be poised and graceful, how to control her vocal instrument, and sending her to a Catholic all-girls high school. The rigorous preparation paid off professionally, but created some resentment in Whitney. When Cissy allegedly had an extramarital affair with the minister at the familys church—in spite of Whitneys fathers own philandering—the mother-daughter relationship was further marred.
“Whitney was very religious, and her life was around the church—so when this happened, her life, her universe, exploded. And she blamed her mother [for her parents divorce]. That allowed her father to get his claws into her,” Macdonald said. According to the director, Houstons father, John, who died in 2003, “just wanted to get as much money out of her as he could, in the shortest period of time.”
In the film, Houstons inner circle recalls staging an intervention for the singer—only to have John tell his daughter that rehab was not necessary.
“Theres a sad thing I learned, which isnt in the film—but Whitneys publicist, Lynn Volkman, said that someone in Johns office had a drug problem. And John sent that person off to rehab—he was very generous, gave them time off, and was really caring. At the same time, his own daughter, who was on drugs, he didnt do anything about it. He didnt try to stop the train.”
The film alleges that John, who worked as his daughters manager, also stole money from her. When Houston learned of the betrayal—as her marriage to Brown was crumbling—she was crushed. Her drug habit escalated—she preferred smoking cocaine with marijuana—and she would disappear behind closed hotel-room doors for up to 10 days. Rather than intervene, the film alleges that her label poured over $5 million into ill-fated recording trips—like a three-month jaunt to Miami that produced less than two songs. A producer recalls Houston saying at the trips end, “I dont think I slept 45 minutes this summer.”
Macdonald also dispels the myth that Brown was responsible for his wifes drug addiction. In one scene, Gary tells Macdonald that, when he was with Houston, they would do drugs every day. “A lot every day—shit that usually kills motherfuckers, and we keep rocking.” As for Browns drug intake, Gary tells him, “Lets just say Bobby was a fucking lightweight when it came to drugs. He could not . . . we used to pass Bobby by lapping him. Trust me.”
Over the course of making the film, Macdonald says that he started thinking about how Houstons tragic path mirrored that of her few peers in the music industry.
“If you think about the three biggest stars of the 1980s—Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney—they all died within a few years in very similar circumstances, between the drug abuse, the isolation, and the eccentric behavior. And you think: why is that? That is not a coincidence. I think you can trace all that back to their childhood experience. Their parents had all come from experiencing trauma in the south to the north—the Great Migration, it was called. Their parents were very political and very engaged in black rights. With Whitney, Michael, and Prince, you couldnt think of three less political people. And theres a sort of poppy frivolity—the way they were that allowed them to be accepted into the white mainstream world—to all three of them.”
Though she is gone, the filmmaker hopes that Whitney will help recover the singers reputation and remind the world of her incredible gift. For those who were close to her, the project has already helped heal.
“With a lot of people around her, there was a sense of guilt, because they feel like, Maybe if wed been more strong with her at the time, maybe confront her drug issues primarily, maybe things wouldnt have gotten so bad,” explained Macdonald. “You get this opportunity with a camera to be this kind of portable psychiatrist couch, to sit with other people. Michael Houston, one of Whitneys brothers, said to me after interview No. 3 or 4, We should just do this every month. Im finding this very therapeutic.”
“I saw Pat yesterday, and she said she talked to Michael and to Gary, and they both, through this whole experience of making the film, felt like it was a therapy session, and opened up a lot of stuff. It is very painful for a family to discuss [these subjects], but they are very grateful, in a way, that they have.”
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