In Kevin Macdonald’s latest project, Whitney, the Oscar-winning director promises the documentary will be “an intimate, unflinching portrait of Houston and her family that probes beyond familiar tabloid headlines and sheds new light on the spellbinding trajectory of Houston’s life.” While Macdonald was initially hesitant to cover Whitney Houston’s life and tragic demise, after discovering one of her most painful secrets, the director knew he had to make it the focus of the film.
According to Macdonald, pushing past the headlines to discover the truth about Houston was difficult. “So many people I spoke to were just untruthful to me, just bullshitting. I never experienced that in any documentary before,” he told Vanity Fair. “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.”
During his interview with Houston’s brother, Gary, the director finally discovered a startling truth. He and Houston had been molested when they were young by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, sister of legendary singer Dionne Warwick.
“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,” Gary said in the film.
The admission that Houston, too, had been abused came from the singer’s former assistant Mary Jones.
“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.”
In the film, Jones recalled the moment Houston told her about the abuse:
“[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,’” Jones said 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 kept the secret of her abuse for her entire life and didn’t tell her mother or Dionne Warwick. Now, both women know.
Pat Houston—the singer’s sister-in-law, manager, and estate executor—said she doesn’t want Dionne Warwick to pay for her sister’s alleged actions.
“She hasn’t wanted to see the film,” Pat Houston said. “But very much myself and everyone else, we all don’t 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 don’t want any repercussions for her.”
Whitney hits theaters July 6.