At what level does a documentary shift from honoring the voices of brutalized ladies to exploiting them for each salacious element? This is the query that haunted me whereas watching Lifetime’s six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired its first two installments on Thursday. Produced by Dream Hampton, the documentary makes use of archival footage, interviews with activists like Tarana Burke, medical psychologists and criminologists, critics like Ann Powers, music movies, live performance clips, and conversations together with his family in an effort to paint a portrait of R. Kelly’s genius (I misplaced depend of what number of instances it was used as a descriptor) as an R&B famous person, in addition to his brutality as an individual. But it’s the testimony of the black and brown ladies he allegedly raped, manipulated, and remoted that’s the focus of this sequence. However, as Hampton and her staff tease out probably the most stomach-churning particulars of those ladies’s experiences — their faces typically streaked with tears and make-up — I noticed it wasn’t the therapeutic or reckoning they have been involved in primarily, however the trauma.
Surviving R. Kelly payments itself as a documentary that speaks reality to energy, because the famous person at its middle lastly sees his rigorously orchestrated manipulations come beneath harsh scrutiny, after escaping conviction in 2003 and 2008. The ladies’s testimonies are certainly shifting and needed, and we must always honor their views. But watching these testimonies, I typically felt like I used to be entering into a personal second, as the ladies pore over the main points of what they skilled, the vast majority of whom have been very younger youngsters on the time of their abuse. Aesthetically, the documentary trades within the coarse rhythms of a tabloid. Horrifying revelations, like the truth that singer Aaliyah was solely 12 when she met R. Kelly, are accompanied by a beat drop or the cruel bang of a gavel.
It is straightforward, particularly now, to acknowledge the monstrousness of R. Kelly. What’s tougher is actually taking to job the apathy inside ourselves that allowed us to show away from these ladies, or ignore their plights. Many of the ladies interviewed word how this world doesn’t look after black women and girls. Surviving R. Kelly is just too within the particulars of what R. Kelly did to those ladies’s our bodies to completely care about their humanity or grapple with the murky complexities of the larger image.
In order to correctly grapple with R. Kelly, one should actually interrogate the dynamics of poisonous black masculinity, the complicity of the black neighborhood itself that allowed his brutality to thrive, cycles of abuse, and our cultural obsession with stardom. Surviving R. Kelly picks up intriguing threads that tease at these interlocking themes, however it proves to be an uneven venue for participating with them in any significant method. Questions surrounding the complicity of these interviewed go unasked. Certain particulars in regards to the timeline of his relationships are left obscure.
Toward the top of the primary episode, there’s an excruciating clip from a 1994 BET Video Soul interview with R. Kelly and Aaliyah. They slink onto the stage in matching outfits. Aaliyah has a fitted cap pulled low, casting a shadow throughout her face in order that when she’s requested questions, it’s exhausting to gauge the place she’s wanting. By this level, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, her debut album from the identical yr, which R. Kelly wrote and produced, had launched her into pop stardom, however she was nonetheless a younger teenager. Leslie “Big Lez” Segar, who interviewed them, recounts to the filmmakers what an uneasy state of affairs it was. But curiously, she describes R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s evasive solutions and matching outfits as their method of manipulating the media machine and “dangling sweet” in entrance of audiences, as they refused to be forthright about whether or not they have been collectively or not. In actuality, everybody knew about R. Kelly’s habits. There have been tales circulating in Chicago for years, particularly of R. Kelly loitering round excessive colleges selecting up women. He wasn’t “hiding in plain sight” as Chicago Sun-Times journalist Kathy Chaney and others pronounce within the documentary. If something, he was flaunting his skill to control and assault a younger woman and get a media storm out of it. We have been all aware about this — folks simply didn’t care. By saying what R. Kelly did within the ’90s was someway obscured lets the folks culpable for safeguarding him off the hook — together with a number of folks within the documentary itself.
A couple of folks admit to their very own complicity — black radio powerhouse Tom Joyner says he ought to have stopped taking part in R. Kelly’s music sooner, and a former worker whose identification is hidden reckons with their very own guilt. And the filmmakers do contact on the complicity of the black neighborhood, music business, and the non-public figures in R. Kelly’s orbit. But it’s principally finished in obscure proclamations the place they blame fame and cash, in probably the most basic phrases, for this perpetual cycle. The reality is extra damning.
Several high-powered pop-culture figures — together with Dave Chappelle, Lady Gaga, and Jay-Z, the latter two who truly collaborated with him — refused to seem within the documentary. Among those that did are music producer Craig Williams, who speaks of seeing youthful ladies within the studio with R. Kelly and different queasy situations, however by no means made a gesture to cease it, a selection he doesn’t absolutely grapple with on digicam. A former bodyguard/tour supervisor talks about witnessing the rising abuse of R. Kelly towards Aaliyah, and his personal discomfort with what he was witnessing; but, he nonetheless had a hand in forging the paperwork needed for them to get married and guarded his employer’s secrets and techniques. Sometimes, the complicity these figures characterize isn’t direct. When Breakfast Club host and grating black pop-culture impresario Charlamagne tha God first seems within the docuseries and says, “The most disrespected girl, traditionally, in America is the black girl,” I let loose a disgruntled chuckle. Charlamagne’s model and profession is partially constructed on the degradation of black women, which may readily be present in a cursory Google search. Why didn’t the filmmakers ask Charlamagne if R. Kelly’s fall, and the activism that has sprung up round him, led him to rethink his personal remedy of black ladies? Why didn’t the filmmakers push those that have been clearly part of the machine that protected R. Kelly about their very own actions? Do they remorse their selections? How is all of this consultant of the music business at massive, which has struggled to realize momentum the best way the movie business has in starting to fight rampant sexual abuse and harassment?
It is usually recommended within the docuseries that the virality of recent activism — with the #MuteRKelly motion coinciding with Time’s Up and #MeToo — has been the cudgel that lastly handicapped R. Kelly’s profession, main Spotify to take away him from playlists, pivotal black radio figures like Tom Joyner pledging to now not play him, and his personal live shows getting canceled in Chicago earlier this yr. But it’s greater than that. R. Kelly’s star has additionally dimmed, making it simpler for audiences and critics to now not be lulled by the charisma that made them ignore his monstrousness.
By far the toughest part of the docuseries to wrestle with is the testimony of Sparkle, R. Kelly’s longtime backup singer and protégé. Sparkle speaks in contradictions. She begins by describing R. Kelly in glowing phrases, her face lighting up as she talks about his “genius.” “He’s an all-around good man,” she proclaims earlier than saying, “Robert is a grasp manipulator.” Sparkle, who testified towards R. Kelly throughout his 2008 trial over child-pornography expenses, is clearly nonetheless making peace with the truth that the person who mentored and nurtured her profession is similar man who manipulated and abused her 14-year-old niece, who was featured being urinated on in that notorious tape. (That it’s referred to so casually all through the doc as “the pee tape” is a testomony to how nonchalant the black neighborhood has and continues to be in regards to the abuse of black women.)
Every girl who speaks of her abuse all through the documentary — every of them labeled as “survivors” beneath their names — tells an identical story. How R. Kelly began out as a goofy, open dude whose ease belied his immense stardom, one who shared his personal historical past of sexual abuse at a younger age by relations to win their belief. This façade would then give method to orders, rape, and isolation of assorted levels, separating these ladies from the folks they cared about and their very own identities. The ladies point out how they weren’t allowed to talk to the folks in R. Kelly’s life, however in addition they weren’t stored hidden. People in his circle knew.
So it’s jarring to listen to Sparkle speak about introducing her then-12-year-old niece to R. Kelly in an effort to develop her burgeoning rap skills. Sparkle even says that she knew to maintain her eyes on her niece and by no means go away her alone in his presence. It’s right here the docuseries faucets into fertile floor that goes unexplored — how black ladies internalize messages about their self-worth and are betrayed by these closest to them. Sparkle is rarely pressed on the admittedly uneasy elements of this story or why she would danger her niece’s security for the prospect at a thriving profession. This results in tensions between the exhausting work these ladies are doing being so susceptible in entrance of the digicam and the exhausting work the filmmakers aren’t doing in asking the complicated questions that reveal each the character of R.Kelly and the way his abuse has persevered for therefore lengthy.
This isn’t to say Surviving R. Kelly is with out benefit. Witnessing these ladies’s testimonies is bruising, for causes private and cultural. I felt a chill when Lizette Martinez, one of many survivors showcased right here, talked about assembly him at Aventura Mall, a mall I used to frequent as a teen rising up in Miami. I winced each time a youngster was known as a “girl,” one other reminder of how black women aren’t afforded childhoods. I used to be notably moved at any time when Jovante Cunningham, a former background singer of R. Kelly’s, appeared onscreen. She spoke of being a 14-year-old woman in R. Kelly’s world, changing into near Aaliyah, and the cataclysmic response to discovering out, firsthand, that he was raping Aaliyah. She’s forthright, reflective, and targeted, even amid tears. These testimonies are evocative as a result of they supply a face and voice to the abuse, in addition to notions of how this world fails black women and the rot the black neighborhood should face in an effort to make certain males like R. Kelly don’t evade justice. But the docuseries typically undermines these testimonies. I misplaced depend of what number of scenes featured the ladies being requested questions like, “Can you describe the bodily abuse?” just for their composure to crack and tears to fall, the digicam by no means shifting from their visage.
In its ultimate episodes, Surviving R. Kelly swerves into stunning territory that turns its uneasy exploitative sheen right into a evident difficulty, and lays naked its journalistic failures. (Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago journalist who has been protecting R. Kelly’s brutality for 18 years, is just not part of Surviving R. Kelly, as he’s making his own documentary. But his absence solely highlights the narrative and journalistic holes.) In episode 5, we watch as Michelle Gardner desperately searches for her daughter, Dominique, who met R. Kelly at 17 and hasn’t been seen by her household for a few yr, as she’s suspected of being in what has been deemed R. Kelly’s “intercourse cult.” In that point, Michelle has solely seen her daughter when a TMZ video, by which she hovers close to the sting of the body, was launched. The digicam crew follows Michelle as she searches inns for Dominique. At one level she huddles in a nook, crying, her again turned to the digicam. But she is given no privateness for the devastation she experiences. When Michelle lastly does discover her daughter, the cameras keep on her till she implores them to cease following them, as Dominique is uncomfortable with their presence.
Similarly uncomfortable is the story of Alice and Angelo Clary, who’re adopted by filmmakers as they journey to a Chicago recording studio that they study could also be housing their daughter, Azriel, additionally allegedly a part of the identical cult. The outcomes aren’t as uplifting. It is heartbreaking and uncomfortable to witness these two mother and father as they scream from the road and throw rocks at home windows, imploring their daughter — who they aren’t even positive is within the constructing — to return out.
Yes, there may be worth in bearing witness to those ladies’s testimonies. But too typically, Surviving R. Kelly performs into moments that really feel exploitative, and lift one other troubling query: How a lot do ladies need to reveal to ensure that us to imagine them?
An earlier model of this story incorrectly acknowledged that Lyric R. Cabral directed Surviving R. Kelly. In reality, Dream Hampton is the manager producer and showrunner. Cabral is directing a different documentary about R. Kelly.