I’ve never before started a television show thinking, “I hope this works.” But that’s exactly the mindset that I had when I began watching the six-part Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. It’s a desperate and naive feeling to put even small hopes of social change on a commercial mass-media product, but I couldn’t help searching for the shot, the piece of tearful testimony, the miserable detail that would finally convince millions of Americans to care about black women and girls enough to turn against R. Kelly. Could this show inspire an army of fans and industry enablers to finally hold him accountable?
Directed by filmmaker and writer dream hampton, Surviving R. Kelly chronicles nearly 30 years of the R&B singer’s alleged sexual abuse and exploitation of black girls and women from his hometown Chicago. Beginning with his early life and his own experiences of childhood sexual assault by a family member, the film moves through his life and music career via survivor interviews, expert testimonies, and archival footage. What emerges is a portrait of a serial predator and abuser enabled by a network of family, friends, and employees. The stories of Kelly’s disturbing and violent behavior are heartbreaking, as is seeing the toll its taken on the survivors and their families. During one interview, Jerhonda Pace, who met Kelly outside of his child pornography trial when she was only 15, is asked to describe the physical abuse Kelly inflicted on her. The way her face changes as she’s overcome with the painful memories is an arresting transformation we see more than once in the survivors as they tell their stories.
Surviving is just the latest in a long list of recent work exposing the somehow still-at-large Kelly. Over the past two years, investigative journalist Jim DeRogatis has written a number of stories for BuzzFeed about Kelly, including the July 2017 piece that first publicized allegations that Kelly entraps and sexually abuses a number of young women in his homes. (DeRogatis, who broke the first major story about Kelly’s teenage victims for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, is noticeably absent from Surviving because he is working on another film on the subject.) In October 2017, Rolling Stone published an extensive account of the abuse Kitti Jones says she endured from Kelly over three years. In March of last year, the U.K. channel BBC Three premiered R. Kelly: Sex, Girls, and Videotapes, after which the singer’s executive assistant and entertainment lawyer resigned. And on a grassroots level, the #MuteRKelly movement has succeeded in drawing increased scrutiny to the singer online as well as getting a number of the his performances in major cities cancelled. It’s impossible at this point to claim ignorance of Kelly’s many awful transgressions.
Anyone who has been following the stories will recognize Pace, Jones, and Lizzette Martinez among the survivors featured in the series. Alongside them are the parents fighting tirelessly to find the daughters currently under Kelly’s control. (During the series, we see one mother, Michelle Kramer reunite with her daughter on screen and then convinces her to leave the hotel where she is staying with another of Kelly’s alleged current victims.) Surviving’s poignant moments come from the testimonies of these brave people. But beyond the accounts of unimaginable abuses, the series’ main accomplishment is in laying bare how Kelly has been able to continue on for so long. A network of on-payroll enablers surround him, some of whom shared their stories with hampton with varying degrees of shame and shamelessness. Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s former tour manager and personal assistant, shares how he had papers forged in 1994 so that the then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah could marry the then-27-year-old Kelly. “I’m not proud of that,” he says shortly before laughingly recounting when Kelly said, “I do.” In another scene, Kelly’s brother describes his pederasty and predation as a “preference.” Later, an employee who has their identity obscured starts crying at the realization of the sick behavior they enabled. At one point, Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea Kelly brings up one of the murkier branches of the singer’s network. Who, she wonders, are the people helping the nearly illiterate singer with the logistics and legal expertise used to continuously entrap so many women and girls?
While many documentaries chronicling the recent past rely on nostalgia to draw us in, Surviving R. Kelly uses it to inspire the viewers to examine their own place in Kelly’s timeline. Episode 1 shows how music media treated rumors of Kelly and Aaliyah’s marriage as salacious gossip points. Episode 4 reminds how millions of us bopped along to “Ignition” just months after a video of him urinating and raping a teenage girl became publicly known and available. It reminds us of how we laughed when Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks turned the video into TV comedy fodder and looked on bemused a couple years later when Kelly released the bizarre “opera” Trapped in the Closet. There is that sliver of us (I assume to be overwhelmingly black women) who rejected Kelly’s work as soon as news first broke that he married a 15-year-old Aaliyah. But as Kelly’s continued success illustrates, the majority of us have not long been among them.
The discomfort Surviving inspires in Kelly’s current and former fans is necessary to the show’s inherent mission: to make sure he is no longer able to fund his abuses via his career. Still, one unexpected discomfort I felt while watching came from the series’ treatment of the survivors and their stories. Part of that was based on the sensationalist editing that gave Surviving the tone of a, well, stereotypical Lifetime movie. Throughout it, heavy survivor testimonies are paired with dramatic, tip-toeing soundtracks that come off as obtrusive attempts to heighten the drama of their stories. Archival photos and video are treated with the type of quick cuts and film-negative effects that have become commonplace for salacious true-crime stories about violence against women.
Another point of discomfort, for me, stemmed from what seemed like questionable decisions on the part of the production. In one scene, survivor Asante McGee takes the cameras on the tour of the Atlanta mansion where Kelly once imprisoned and abused her. The scene doesn’t provide any valuable insight and instead shows us McGee being retraumatized before our eyes. “Just being here and just looking at this door is about to bring back a whole bunch of memories that I never thought I’d have to revisit,” she says, giving the impression that this trip wasn’t her idea. Her subsequent breakdown after finding herself back in Kelly’s old master bedroom only strengthens that assumption. In another instance, Michelle Kramer asks the cameras not to ride in the car with her and her daughter as they flee the hotel where she has been kept captive. However, audio from the microphone Kramer is wearing as they drive off is included. Shaky shots from the production’s tailing car fade in and out as we hear the mother and daughter cry, overwhelmed by the pain and elation of what just occurred. As joyful as the outcome is, the scene comes off as oddly covert and prying. It was a precious, intimate moment cheapened by the microphone and the crew’s intrusion.
One of the more bizarre production decisions was to include footage of not one but two allegedly abusive men condemning R. Kelly’s actions as examples of a changing tide in the entertainment industry. In the final episode, radio host Charlamagne tha God periodically appears to comment on Kelly’s continued career. “I always say if you want to get away with murder, kill a black rapper. If you want to get away with sexual assault, assault a young black girl,” he says as a troubling way to highlight how Kelly’s choice of victims helps him escape legal consequences. The point, that Americans simply do not care about black girls, is much better made later by #MuteRKelly co-founder Oronike Odeleye. When clips of Charlamagne and fellow radio host Joe Budden decrying Kelly on their shows appear in a montage highlighting black men in radio who have publicly turned away from the artist, it’s never mentioned that Charlamagne has been accused of sexually assaulting minors and has joked about sexual assault on his show, or that Budden has been accused more than once of physically assaulting his romantic partners. The decision to include these two alleged abusers completely unrelated to the events of the film remains highly questionable.
Days after the final episode aired may be too soon to measure the Surviving’s material consequences for Kelly, if any. But if the series has immediately accomplished anything, it’s been sparking conversation around ending the abetting and veneration of other abusers acting in plain sight. During the show’s airing, many on social media called attention to 32-year-old rapper/singer Drake, who has alluded to having emotionally intimate relationships with at least two teenagers. On the evening of the premiere of the first two episodes of Surviving a 2010 video of him kissing and touching a 17-year-old girl onstage at a concert made the rounds online. Meanwhile, others have taken the opportunity to talk about childhood sexual assault, particularly in the black community, and instances when offenders are often given passes while young victims are labelled “mature” or “fast.” Still, there remains a contingent of R. Kelly fans and others who still just can’t quite believe these survivors. As it stands, Kelly will never lose all of his supporters for the simple fact that some people truly don’t care what he did and does to black women and girls. A TV series can’t change that or bring Kelly down. But perhaps a legion of viewers, inspired by survivors, can.