‘Whitney’ director discusses how he discovered the secret of Whitney Houston’s childhood abuse
When filmmaker Kevin Macdonald agreed to make Whitney, the first authorized documentary about Whitney Houston, he had one major request for the late singer’s family. “The issue for me was very simple: They had to be willing to give me final cut,” the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Making these kinds of films — celebrity portraits — unless you as the filmmaker have control, it’s a slippery slope to hell.” Striking that deal with the Houston family meant that Macdonald had final say over what went in the film, even if the information he turned up didn’t present them, or Houston herself, in the best light.
Of course, that also meant that her family members were on their guard when they first sat down to be interviewed. “All the family were pretty reluctant to talk,” Macdonald remembers. “In principal, they had agreed to be part of this film, but it’s a different matter when they turned up to be on camera.”
Over the course of multiple interviews, though, the director could feel those barriers start to come down and reveal a glimpse of the Whitney Houston who existed outside of the public spotlight, including her pre-fame romantic life and how she revolutionized the national anthem. But as he edited the film, he still felt as though some key piece of information was being kept from him. “I became more and more aware that there was something odd about Whitney’s body language,” he explains. “It made me think that she must have suffered some kind of trauma.” An interview with her brother, Gary Houston, provided a significant clue to back up that hypothesis. While discussing his lifelong struggle with drug addiction, Gary revealed that he was plagued by childhood memories of being sexually abused by a female family member. “I asked if the same thing happened to Whitney, and he said he didn’t know,” Macdonald says. “Just after that, I interviewed his wife, Pat Houston, and she confirmed that Whitney had told her the same thing happened to her.”
That bombshell detail was also confirmed by the singer’s longtime assistant, Mary Jones — who, along with Whitney’s brother, identifies the abuser as Dee Dee Warwick, first cousin to Gary and Whitney and a celebrated singer in her own right. Warwick died in 2008, four years before Whitney Houston, and this story stayed within the family during both their lifetimes. (Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, has just issued her first public statement about the allegations in a new People magazine story.)
“[Mary] was of the belief that this was the kind of elephant in the room — this was the thing that had caused so many of Whitney’s problems,” Macdonald says. “She wanted this to come out.” Asked whether he was concerned about any blowback that might accompany identifying Warwick as Whitney’s abuser, the director notes that his concerns were ethical rather than legal. “There were no legal repercussions, because the person we accuse is no longer alive; there were ethical considerations whether or not to use her name, and we did discuss for several weeks — myself and the producers — whether or not it was the right thing to do.”