The hit documentary on the silver screen this summer is Whitney which follows the life of the pop music megastar Whitney Houston. The seams of her life were laced with familial issues, domestic abuse, and drug addiction that the public didn’t see until she began to unravel. The director of Whitney, Kevin Macdonald, wanted to paint a realistic picture of her life and share her story – including all the dirt and grime alongside the glam and glitz.
Houston was raised in New Jersey, starting out in a rough area of Newark then moving to the racially-mixed suburban area of East Orange. She was bullied and taunted by her peers, both white and black, and struggled with insecurity of not being “black enough” her entire life.
Whitney wasn’t the first star in her family, however. Her mother, Cissy Houston, had been a background singer for major acts such as Aretha Franklin and Elvis but never made it as a solo artist. She began to live vicariously through Houston and eventually helped her find her way to stardom.
Rumors of trauma have been circulated and seemed to surface as Macdonald delved further in to the interviews he conducted for the documentary. The director had sat down with Whitney’s brother, Gary Houston, who shared his experience of being molested by a family member at a young age, leading Macdonald to believe that Whitney may have endured some of this child abuse as well. Macdonald stated in a recent interview with Jeremy Hobson that, “I began to suspect that there was some trauma, some abuse in Whitney’s background, quite early on. Just from various things that Whitney said and from the way she behaved, it seemed to line up with some of the things that I knew about the effects of childhood trauma.”
As a young, 16-year-old girl Whitney was given cocaine by a family friend and found herself hooked within a year or two. The crack cocaine epidemic was sweeping across urban parts of the nation during this time period and Houston got swept up too. Macdonald spoke about this juxtaposition of heavy drug use and innocence, “And so even at the point where she was America’s sweetheart, when she was this seemingly beautiful, innocent, fresh-faced singer, and was the kind of girl your mom maybe thought that you should go out with, she was actually using drugs very, very heavily.”
Houston began to spiral out of control throughout the 1990’s and into the early millennium while, contrarily, her career was skyrocketing. In 1992, she married R&B sensation Bobby Brown who had been rumored to be using crack cocaine at the time. When his substance abuse was in question, he stood his ground, “I’ve never used drugs and never been on drugs. My only drug is, I think, alcohol.”
Though it wasn’t clear as to when their marriage began to grow toxic, it came to a head in 2003 when Bobby was arrested on a domestic violence charge for hitting Whitney. They stayed together for another four years, finalizing their divorce in 2007 after a whirlwind of controversy due to their appearances on the reality show Being Bobby Brown and multiple arrests. Both she and Bobby struggled with their substance abuse throughout their marriage and became open about it in later interviews.
Whitney’s addiction was stronger than her celebrity status, bank account, and musical prowess – she was found dead in a bathtub of a hotel with cocaine, Xanax, and marijuana, among other drugs, in her system. The cause of death was ruled an accident due to drug-induced atherosclerotic heart disease at the young age of 48.
Macdonald tries to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding her black-and-white public and private lives in creating Whitney, but finds that his research only lead him to having more questions. Macdonald noted, “So yeah, that’s the real struggle, but it’s part of what makes Whitney so complex and interesting, and the thing I find with this film unlike anything else I’ve ever done is that people want to debate and discuss it. There are no hard-and-fast answers, but Whitney’s life story seems to be one that is resonant for people. It’s a pure tragedy, in the Greek or the Shakespearean sense.”
Whitney Houston’s personal life is still an enigma to many. The world was in shock to find out that this powerhouse diva who built an amazing career and seemed so classy and put-together was plagued by a fatal addiction. Her story can serve as a lesson to us that addiction can take anyone in its grips, that no matter how rich, famous, or talented a person may be, the drugs will find a way. If you believe that you or a loved one may be struggling, please reach out – it’s never too soon to seek help, but it can always be too late.