The film takes its time arriving at a few theories pertaining to her personal life. It opens with a wider scope, cross-cutting clips of Houston's music video for the dance-pop classic "How Will I Know" with video of the 1967 Newark riots, which Houston recalls witnessing as a little girl before her mother moved the family to a middle-class neighborhood and enrolled her in Catholic school.
As details begin to emerge — a father so jealous he wiretapped the family's phones, periods of time spent away with relatives while her mother toured as a backup singer to acts such as Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin — the image of an oft-caricatured pop star gives way to that of a person navigating the complexities of family, spirituality, and sexuality.
Pat Houston — Whitney's sister-in-law and the executor of her estate — is credited as an executive producer on the film and says the project was therapeutic for the family, which also grappled with the uncannily similar death of Whitney's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, in 2015. Despite her role in the making of the film, Pat Houston was not present when other family members were interviewed.
"I didn't want to feel like I was trying to control the situation," she says. "People needed to be free. They were free. She had her own relationships with people. They were her friends and associates... and they had a right to speak their mind."
Director Kevin Macdonald's open approach makes for some contested statements in the film. One point of contention involves Whitney Houston's relationship with best friend and rumored romantic partner Robyn Crawford. Gary Garland, one of Houston's brothers, refers to Crawford as an opportunist and says she was involved in "wicked" activities but refuses to elaborate. However, others in Houston's inner circle argue that
Crawford was asked to participate in the making of Whitney but declined. She's writing a book about her life with Houston. Speaking broadly in the film and not necessarily about Crawford, Houston's longtime friend and musical director Rickey Minor
"The world deals with the rumors," Pat Houston says. "We know the story. It was a friendship. Whitney said herself in the film: 'Who do you believe, the world or Whitney?' She told you that she wasn't gay. You know, she may have experimented or whatever. Robin was a friend. And whatever Robin's desires were, Whitney had a different idea... She did what she truly wanted to do. She wanted to get married, and she wanted to have a family, and she married for love."
The most heart-wrenching moment in the film comes when the family reveals Whitney Houston and her brother Gary Garland's childhood molestation at the hands of a close and well-known family friend. The abuse took place when Houston's mother was away on tour. "It mirrored a lot of women around the world that are working-class women that have to leave [their] children with babysitters or relatives," Pat Houston says.
Remarkably, Macdonald signed on to make the film before he knew about the family's long-held secrets. And that's perhaps why the film feels so compelling. It was as much an exploration for the filmmaker as it is for its audience. "You can't give someone the key to a vault and not allow them to look in it," Houston says. "And that's exactly what he did."
Asked why the family was finally willing to reveal Whitney's truth after years of shielding her from the media, Pat Houston says the release was crucial for the well-being of the surviving family.
"You know, it's almost like living in a box and the lid being closed all those many years," she says. "And everything is about timing, and she's not here anymore. And there's a reason for that. And as you can see in the film, there was a lot of silent suffering as it relates to her. The reveal is good for the soul. It may hurt a few people; some people may not even understand. But now is the time, and I'm certainly glad that some of the family members were able to talk about their truth."
Whitney. Opens in South Florida Friday, July 6. Screening times vary. Visit whitneythefilm.com for more info.