The most shocking moment of Whitney, Kevin MacDonald’s probing and eye-opening documentary on the iconic Whitney Houston, is the revelation that she and her brother Gary were sexually abused as children by their cousin, the singer Dee Dee Warwick.
This was such a shock that after “Whitney” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May the news immediately went viral, as it slightly helped to explain why Houston had struggled with the various issues that ultimately led to her untimely death at the age of 48 in February, 2012.
I recently had the chance to speak to MacDonald, during which time I quizzed the Scottish filmmaker about investigating and exposing this startling news, which, he admitted, actually came from a hunch of his.
“After a few months of being really frustrated watching all of these interviews of Whitney and feeling like she is giving very little away, you feel like you are starting to get to know someone and get to know their ticks and their habits and their physicality.”
“And I just started to feel like there was something really odd in Whitney’s protectiveness and in her physicality. The best way of putting it was she was always uncomfortable in her own skin, and so self-protected. The only time that she didn’t seem like that was when she was singing.”
“I began to see something and recognize from people that I have met and people I had seen in documentary films, people who had suffered trauma in their childhood. It felt like there was something like that in the way she carried herself. So I started to have this intuition.”
“Then I saw this radio interview she had done with Simon Bates, the old UK 90s radio DJ in 1989, and bits of it are in the film. He asks her, ‘What makes you angry?’ And she says, ‘Child abuse.’ He’s like, ‘What do you mean by that? I thought you came from a really happy family. That’s the story.’ She’s like, ‘It is something that I hate seeing’.”
“I thought, ‘That’s weird. Why is she saying that? Something has slipped out there that she didn’t mean to slip out’.”
Finding out the details and the truth about Houston’s childhood wasn’t quite so easy, though.
“So then I started to ask around. To begin with I got really short shrift. People being like, ‘Why are you asking that question?’ The family were very sensitive about it. They would say, ‘Nothing happened to her!’”
“And then, it was only about a month towards the end of the process when we finished editing that I was talking to her brother Gary about his own addiction. I asked, ‘Why do you think it is that you’re addicted? Why are you still struggling with it?’ And he said, ‘These childhood memories that keep on coming back, flashing back in my head’.”
“I asked what it was, and he said what he said in the film about being abused by a female relative. And then that led me to talk to his wife, who had been quite angry about it before when I asked, but now started to open up.”
“Then finally just two weeks before we finished the edit Mary Jones, her assistant, said, ‘Actually I want to talk to you about this. I think that’s the key to understanding Whitney. I didn’t want to talk about it before because I thought it was best to let the family talk about it first. Now that they have I want to talk about it.’”
“Because she said she had talked about it a lot with Whitney in the last years of her life. Mary had also had a sister of hers who had been sexually abused, she understood the importance of it as a psychological trigger and psychological aspect of her personality. She opened up about it, and it was really right towards the end.”
MacDonald quickly decided that he wanted the revelation in “Whitney” to mirror his own journey trying to uncover it.
“The film was a detective story. An investigation. And I wanted it to have the feeling in the end that I had as a filmmaker. Where I finally got to the stage of, ‘OK, I may not ever fully understand her. But she makes the sense to me now.’ And I wanted the audience to have that feeling.”