Documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has said he saw his new project, Whitney, about late singer Whitney Houston, as an investigation — an attempt to look beyond the stereotype of the troubled, tarnished music icon, her drug addiction and shocking, premature death, and to shed new light on her inner demons. After Whitney premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, we now know what is Macdonald's biggest discovery: According to at least three members of Houston's family, she was sexually abused by her cousin, the late soul singer Dee Dee Warwick.
"There was something about her discomfort in her own skin, something about the way she presents or hides herself, her lack of overt sexuality," Macdonald told Indiewire of why he began to suspect she had been abused.
Though he was almost done filming the documentary, for which he interviewed 70 people, the filmmaker went back and to investigate the abuse claims. Finally, someone confirmed the accusations off camera; then, Houston's half brother, Gary Houston (a.k.a. Gary Garland), dropped a bombshell, revealing on camera that Warwick (sister of Dionne Warwick) had abused him.
"So it’s not allegations. He’s saying 'I was abused by this person' and told me, ‘I think she abused Whitney.’ " Macdonald told Indiewire. Gary's wife, Pat Houston, also told Macdonald that Whitney had mentioned she was abused, without providing any details.
Two weeks before Macdonald was about to begin editing footage, Mary Jones, Whitney's aunt and assistant in the last 10 years of her life, came forward to tell him that she'd spoken to the star about her abuse as well.
"[Jones] had a sister who had been abused in her childhood, and she felt so strongly that this was the thing that was the catalyst of so many things in Whitney’s life," Macdonald said.
Dee Dee Warwick herself died in 2008, four years before Houston's bathtub drowning death in 2012; Macdonald wrestled with how to present this shocking information about an alleged perpetrator who isn't alive to respond to the claims. Experts on sexual abuse convinced him to include this information in the movie in the hopes it could help others.
"That is the current thinking: It may prevent other people being abused in the future, it may give people the courage to come forward and say, 'This happened to me, and this was the person who did it,' " he told Deadline. "So there was some nervousness about it to begin with because I didn’t expect to be making a film about somebody who was an entertainer to lead to such a dark place. But once we got there, I felt like we had an obligation to use this."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).