for much of her young life, whitney houston was famous for one thing: her voice, the most glorious in ’80s pop music, immortalized in massive hits like “I Wanna to Dance With Somebody” and “I Will Always Love You.” But with her marriage to Bobby Brown in 1992 came a steep decline. Now, she was better known for their train wreck of a relationship and an intractable drug addiction that eventually led to her death: At 48, she accidentally drowned in a hotel bathtub. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald hopes to restore Houston’s reputation with his new documentary, Whitney, “a serious film,” he says, “about somebody people don’t take seriously anymore.” Macdonald made one startling revelation, weeks before he finished the film: As a child, Houston was sexually abused by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, the late sister of singer Dionne Warwick. “It’s not the one thing that explains Whitney—it’s not one thing that explains anyone—but an awful lot of pieces of her psychology fall into place when you learn that,” says Macdonald, who spoke to Newsweek about Houston’s harrowing secret. Did you suspect there was abuse in Houston’s past?
Not to begin with. But after watching Whitney on screen every day for days on end, I began to feel there was something awkward about her in interviews. She seemed uncomfortable in her own skin, and that manner was familiar to me from people I’d met who had suffered trauma as a child. In one interview, in the ɿlm, she talks about how she hates child abuse more than anything. I thought, Why is she on about this? Is there something in her past?
How did it come out during ɿlming? I was talking to her brother, Gary, about his struggles with addiction: Was there something psychological at the root of it? He said it was being abused by a female relative. Then it slowly came out that that person had also abused Whitney.
“A lot of pieces of her psychology fall into place when you learn [ she was abused ] .”
The use of sexual abuse as a plot twist has been criticized. Are you concerned about that?
It is a plot device, I suppose, but it’s representative of my process. It’s at the end of the ɿlm, which imitates the way I came across this information—it wasn’t what I set out to ɿnd. It also allows the audience to begin with the positive. My intention is to celebrate Whitney. She didn’t write her songs, but she had an extraordinary power that went straight to your heart. Maybe after seeing the ɿlm you’ll listen to her differently and appreciate what she achieved. —Anna Menta