"Whitney" director on Houston's untold story: "Whitney had been abused, and it took a huge toll"

"Whitney" director Kevin Macdonald talks to Salon about making a documentary about the woman behind the voice

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 3, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

A photo of Whitney Houston from the film "Whitney" (Courtesy of The Estate of Whitney E. Houston)
A photo of Whitney Houston from the film "Whitney" (Courtesy of The Estate of Whitney E. Houston)

Six years after her untimely death at the age of 48, Whitney Houston has become a subject of renewed fascination, and deeper appreciation. Director Kevin Macdonald's ("Touching the Void," "The Last King of Scotland") intimate new documentary "Whitney" traces the rise and fall of the little girl from Newark with the big voice, and the impact of her legacy.

You were able to get so many of the people in Whitney Houston's life — her family members, her colleagues, her fellow musicians — together to talk very, very candidly, sometimes for the first time on the record. I want to talk about the process of assembling a movie like this, and the integrity that you must have brought to pitching it that you were able to get this lineup of people to talk to you.

The key thing, for me, was to retain editorial control of the film because, obviously, when you're dealing with a celebrity — particularly with the celebrity estate, the Whitney Houston estate — they have their own agenda. They have things that they generally want to come out and don't want to come out. But I think, Whitney Houston's estate was something different from what I've experienced before. It was a family that realized that Whitney's image had been tarnished over the last few years, all of kind of tabloid exploits, and all of that. They saw it as in their interest to make a film that was totally honest. That actually said to people, all those things you think you know about her are not right.

The estate and myself had a shared goal, which was to humanize her. I wanted to make a portrait of the human being Whitney to try and understand her — because she is so enigmatic — and just understand what it was that drove her. In fact, the first thing that made me want to make the film was meeting Whitney's agent Nicole David. She said to me, "Kevin, I really want you to make this film, because I loved Whitney so much, but I never understood her. I don't think anybody around her understood her. Please, will you make a film where we can try and understand her?" That was an amazing appeal from somebody who spent so long with her.

Just to give a sense of the people who are in this film: her mother, Cissy Houston, her ex-husband Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, Clive Davis, her brothers. There's an array of people, celebrities, non-celebrities, almost everyone who was intimate with her.

Watch the full interview with Kevin Macdonald

Whitney Houston’s family opens up in new film

One of the things that emerges very quickly as you talk about the enigma of her is that she literally had two personae. There's the private person, who had her own name.

That was Nippy. She was Nippy, and then the public person was Whitney. There's an amazing piece of footage in here, where you see the two characters talking to each other. You see Whitney calling Nippy. Whitney calling Nippy, and "Nippy won't talk to Whitney at the moment." It's this amazing kind of a schizophrenic moment, which sums up an awful lot about her personality.

At the very origins of the story, you can see that her mother named her after this famous white actress from a sitcom called "Hazel," which she particularly loved. It was all about being a sort of middle class, white woman in 1960's suburban American, and that's how she saw Whitney, in a way. At the same time, her father was quite involved with black politics in Newark in the sixties. He worked for the first black mayor of Newark, Ken Gibson. He called her Nippy. Her mother called her Whitney.  That kind of division just continued, and I think grew wider and wider as she grew older.

Here's this girl who was growing up in Newark in the '60s, who remembers the race riots, remembers the fires, remembers hiding.

She remembers ducking down in her bedroom whilst the bullets were flying around.

Yet also, gets sent to private school, gets groomed to be very elegant. By the time she emerges in public at that the beginning of her career, she's a model. You show these early interviews where she's being trotted out like a product, as this beautiful, elegant lady.

I think the nuance of that is that she's a product, but actually she's really the creation of her parents. She's the creation mostly of her mother, actually. Her mother's singing, a very quiet kind of music. That's what her mother like to sing, and what she encouraged Whitney to sing. The way she dressed in this very demure, safe way, that lady-like fashion that again came very much from her mother. I think there's a misconception that it was Clive Davis and the music industry which molded her and pushed her into this box. They took a product that was almost fully formed, and they thought, "That's going to work well."

People who maybe don't remember the early years of Whitney's career and weren't there as it was unfolding in real time may not know the backlash that she received for that. That she had people calling her Whitey. That she was booed at the Soul Train Awards. She paid a tremendous price for that persona.

You can also see that division was starting early on. She was bullied for being a little white girl at school. She lived in a dark-skinned neighborhood. She was quite light-skinned. She has descriptions in the documentary of being chased home from school by the rough kids. She didn't really have any friends at all growing up. Her friends were her brothers. Her security was all in her family.

As revealed later on in the documentary, she suffered sexual abuse as a child. The family was the solace, and then when her parents divorced, that was absolutely devastating for her. That was the end of the security that she had — probably the only period of security that she ever felt she had in her life. When, later on in her career, Al Sharpton starts this campaign against Whitney calling her Whitey Houston, and saying that she's not employing enough black promoters, not a lot black musicians, it's devastating to her. It's reminding her of what it was like at school, being bullied for something. "I'm just trying to sing here, and suddenly I'm caught in the middle of this argument that's so much bigger than I am."

Into that comes Bobby Brown, at this moment in her life where she is perhaps particularly vulnerable, and that changes everything for her.

That changes absolutely everything for her, but I think maybe not quite in a way that is commonly perceived. People tend to think, "Bobby Brown, he's the villain of the piece. He's bad boy Bobby, who introduced her to drugs, and she was the sweet America's princess, so innocent, so lovely, and he corrupted her." As the film makes clear, the truth is more complex. Whitney was already doing cocaine. She was probably the one who encouraged Bobby to take it. There's a very kind of amusing moment in the film where one of Whitney's brothers says, "When it came to drugs, Bobby was a lightweight. We could run rings around him."

There's no doubt in my mind that she loved Bobby deeply, but why did she choose that man and why did she stick with him for so long? I think it has got something to do with this feeling of, "I'm not being accepted as truly black. My own people are rejecting me." Bobby here, he seems to personify black manhood for her.

Let's talk about this masculinity, because the film sets this up very early. One of the most enigmatic aspects of Whitney Houston's life is her sexuality and her relationship with her friend Robyn, and the question marks around this. She was constantly defending her heterosexual persona, because she wasn't at the time given the freedom to have any other.

I haven't spoken to Robyn. We've emailed Robyn. She refused to be in the film, unfortunately. But from talking to those who knew them both around that time, and seeing a few documents, letters related to that time between the two of them, my understanding is that Robyn was a great, great friend of hers. They moved in together after Whitney's parents divorced. They started a romantic relationship, and that lasted for a number of years up until pretty much Whitney's career took off in the mid-'80s, at which point, they separated. I think partly for professional reasons. They thought, "This is going to get in the way of your career, and your career is very important for both of us." Robyn saw herself as Whitney's manager, the person who looked after her. She was called her executive assistant, but really she was much, much more than that. She was emotional support. She was security, but she also was very, very knowledgeable about everything in Whitney's creative world.

Then, Whitney has relationships with a bunch of various men, one of whom is viewed in the film and who had no sense at the time that she was in love and dating Robyn Crawford. And then she meets Bobby. She's definitely in love with Bobby. You can see the wedding footage, their wedding home videos [are] just beautiful actually, and she's crying.

It's very moving. What's actually is going on in her sexuality, it is unclear. I think she loved Robyn, and then she loved Bobby. In today's world, that kind of fluidity, that sort of refusal to be pigeonholed into either being gay or being straight, would be much more acceptable. Or if not much more acceptable, would be unremarkable. Back then, that was way, way too complicated. The media sort of pounces on this and said, "She's gay and she's only marrying Bobby because she feels she has to for her career." I don't think that's true. I think the truth is more complex.

People talk about this in the film in a way that I've never seen openly discussed. You can see that [Whitney] is trying to parse that as well. Someone says, "Whitney just loved. She just loved." Today, we would say that that was fluid. You think about the female artists now, like Gaga, like Kesha, like Janelle, Miley, Halsey. These women who are really at the top of the game musically are also openly discussing their fluidity, openly discussing where they feel they fall in terms of gender and sexuality. Whitney never had the toolkit for that.

There was not even the vocabulary of that. At that time, you were either straight or you were gay. If you were gay, you probably kept [that] hidden.

One of the reasons that it seems like she felt an even deeper need to keep that hidden was because of sexual abuse in her past. That comes in very late in the film, which I'm sure was a very conscious choice for you as a filmmaker. Why do you bring it up at that point in the film? Talk a little bit about what that abuse was, and how that affected her in terms of questioning her sexuality.

There are a couple of reasons why I bring it up later in the film. The first one is I didn't want everything in the movie to be colored by it. I thought if I had that in her childhood, "By the way, she was abused," that will be such a bombshell for everyone going forward that they wouldn't get the joy out of the rise of her career, these great highlights of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "The Bodyguard." That's one maybe more superficial reason.

The main reason was because actually I found out about that really late on the process, in the last few weeks of editing this film. We edited it for over a year, in the last three or four weeks, I found out. She had never really told her parents about it. She'd never told even her brothers about it. I wanted to reproduce for the audience the same kind of investigation that I had been on, which was starting off thinking, here's this enigma. What is it that's driving her? What is she running from?

When you hear about what happened to her as a little girl, it makes so much you've been wondering about before that stack up. Suddenly, I think you can understand things in a very different way. One aspect of anyone's life [isn't] going to make you understand everything about them. But I think in her case, it really makes a lot of sense of things that I was struggling to comprehend.

When I look at 19-year-old Whitney singing "Home" on television for the first time, I think of that girl if she were a 19-year-old today coming up in the world where there is a conversation openly about abuse. This girl who you show felt ashamed about it, questioned herself about it, questioned what she had done maybe to encourage her own abuse.

It just added to the complexity around her thoughts in the discussions around sexuality. I think she felt partly, "I don't want to tell my mother about the abuse, because she will think that that's connected to my relationship with Robyn Crawford," or people will make those connections even if they don't exist. I think, yes, it doubled that on the shame that she felt.

You spend a good portion of this film dissecting when she had become a "joke" and what that was like. More of us remembered that period than maybe remember her early years when she was a punchline on "SNL" and on "Family Guy" and on all these different shows where the joke was, coked out, skinny, completely out of her mind Whitney. Who that girl really was, who that woman really was, and where she really was mentally on the last project of her life when she was doing Sparkle wasn't this joke. She wasn't this punchline.

I think it's tremendously moving when you see those clips, and you see how much cruelty there is in the media. I'm sure it's going on at the moment about somebody else, whoever that person is at the moment. You can imagine for a vulnerable, insecure person that she was, seeing herself portrayed in that way, seen that you have become the punchline must have been absolutely devastating. If you think about the psychology of someone who had no friends as a child, who was bullied, who was devastated and cried for years about the fact that her parents divorced. How sensitive that person is.

That person who also had one of the biggest selling debut albums of all time, still I believe, was one of the biggest selling female artists of all time.

The only artist ever had seven consecutive number ones in the U.S. She had seven songs that were in the late eighties, early nineties, which all went to number one. It's an incredible record.

"I Will Always Love You," longest time at number one on the Billboard. (Note: In 1995, that record was passed by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day.")

Yet, this vulnerable, shy, fragile girl who winds up alone in a bathtub.

You used the word "girl," and I think that's the thing. You get the feeling that she always was that little girl. That girl is still in her. Her assistant says, "You could see Nippy in there, but she was lost. She couldn't get out. She didn't know how to get out." I think that's often the effect that sexual abuse could have on people that their emotional development is kind of stunted at the age which this terrible trauma occurs. I think these days, we talk about it, there will be therapy. Hopefully, people would then continue to develop in a more normal way, but she didn't have that option. It was all pushed down.

The other night, we did a premiere here in New York, and a lot of the family came, one of her brothers, her two sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews. Afterwards, they were all standing around talking, and I went up a little nervously to find out what they thought of it. They really loved the movie. They said, "What we hope comes out of this is that the African-American community start using and talking about therapy, because we are averse to therapy, very averse to sort of letting people into our private lives. It's just culturally not what we do, but this movie shows that that has to change."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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