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 singer’s 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. I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston, who died in 2008. Dee Dee and Dionne performed together as the Gospelaires in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes singing with Cissy’s 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 wasn’t 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 Whitney’s 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 Jones’s 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 wasn’t by a man—it was a woman,’” recalls Jones in the film. “She had tears in her eyes. She says, ‘Mommy don’t 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.