At what point does a documentary shift from honoring the voices of brutalized women to exploiting them for every salacious detail? This is the question that haunted me while watching Lifetime’s six-part docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, which aired its first two installments on Thursday. Produced by Dream Hampton, the documentary uses archival footage, interviews with activists like Tarana Burke, clinical psychologists and criminologists, critics like Ann Powers, music videos, concert clips, and conversations with his own family in order to paint a portrait of R. Kelly’s genius (I lost count of how many times it was used as a descriptor) as an R&B superstar, as well as his brutality as a person. But it is the testimony of the black and brown women he allegedly raped, manipulated, and isolated that is the focus of this series. However, as Hampton and her team tease out the most stomach-churning details of these women’s experiences — their faces often streaked with tears and makeup — I realized it wasn’t the healing or reckoning they were interested in primarily, but the trauma.
Surviving R. Kelly bills itself as a documentary that speaks truth to power, as the superstar at its center finally sees his carefully orchestrated manipulations come under harsh scrutiny, after escaping conviction in 2003 and 2008. The women’s testimonies are indeed moving and necessary, and we should honor their perspectives. But watching those testimonies, I often felt like I was stepping into a private moment, as the women pore over the details of what they experienced, the majority of whom were very young teenagers at the time of their abuse. Aesthetically, the documentary trades in the coarse rhythms of a tabloid. Horrifying revelations, like the fact that singer Aaliyah was only 12 when she met R. Kelly, are accompanied by a beat drop or the harsh bang of a gavel.
It is easy, especially now, to acknowledge the monstrousness of R. Kelly. What’s more difficult is honestly taking to task the apathy within ourselves that allowed us to turn away from these women, or ignore their plights. Many of the women interviewed note how this world does not care for black girls and women. Surviving R. Kelly is too interested in the particulars of what R. Kelly did to these women’s bodies to fully care about their humanity or grapple with the murky complexities of the bigger picture.
In order to properly grapple with R. Kelly, one must honestly interrogate the dynamics of toxic black masculinity, the complicity of the black community 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, but it proves to be an uneven venue for engaging with them in any meaningful way. Questions surrounding the complicity of those interviewed go unasked. Certain details about the timeline of his relationships are left vague.
Toward the end of the first 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 across her face so that when she’s asked questions, it’s hard to gauge where she’s looking. By this point, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, her debut album from the same year, which R. Kelly wrote and produced, had launched her into pop stardom, but she was still a young teenager. Leslie “Big Lez” Segar, who interviewed them, recounts to the filmmakers what an uneasy situation it was. But curiously, she describes R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s evasive answers and matching outfits as their way of manipulating the media machine and “dangling candy” in front of audiences, as they refused to be forthright about whether they were together or not. In reality, everyone knew about R. Kelly’s behavior. There have been stories circulating in Chicago for years, especially of R. Kelly loitering around high schools picking up girls. He wasn’t “hiding in plain sight” as Chicago Sun-Times journalist Kathy Chaney and others pronounce in the documentary. If anything, he was flaunting his ability to manipulate and assault a young girl and get a media storm out of it. We were all privy to this — people just didn’t care. By saying what R. Kelly did in the ’90s was somehow obscured lets the people culpable for protecting him off the hook — including several people in the documentary itself.
A few people admit to their own complicity — black radio powerhouse Tom Joyner says he should have stopped playing R. Kelly’s music sooner, and a former employee whose identity is hidden reckons with their own guilt. And the filmmakers do touch on the complicity of the black community, music industry, and the personal figures in R. Kelly’s orbit. But it’s mostly done in vague proclamations where they blame fame and money, in the most general terms, for this perpetual cycle. The truth is more damning.
Several high-powered pop-culture figures — including Dave Chappelle, Lady Gaga, and Jay-Z, the latter two who actually collaborated with him — refused to appear in the documentary. Among those who did are music producer Craig Williams, who speaks of seeing younger women in the studio with R. Kelly and other queasy scenarios, but never made a gesture to stop it, a choice he doesn’t fully grapple with on camera. A former bodyguard/tour manager talks about witnessing the growing abuse of R. Kelly toward Aaliyah, and his own discomfort with what he was witnessing; yet, he still had a hand in forging the documents necessary for them to get married and protected his employer’s secrets. Sometimes, the complicity these figures represent isn’t direct. When Breakfast Club host and grating black pop-culture impresario Charlamagne tha God first appears in the docuseries and says, “The most disrespected woman, historically, in America is the black woman,” I let out a disgruntled chuckle. Charlamagne’s brand and career is partially built on the degradation of black women, which can readily be found in a cursory Google search. Why didn’t the filmmakers ask Charlamagne if R. Kelly’s fall, and the activism that has sprung up around him, led him to reconsider his own treatment of black women? Why didn’t the filmmakers push those who were clearly a part of the machine that protected R. Kelly about their own actions? Do they regret their choices? How is all of this representative of the music industry at large, which has struggled to gain momentum the way the film industry has in beginning to combat rampant sexual abuse and harassment?
It is suggested in the docuseries that the virality of modern activism — with the #MuteRKelly movement coinciding with Time’s Up and #MeToo — has been the cudgel that finally handicapped R. Kelly’s career, leading Spotify to remove him from playlists, pivotal black radio figures like Tom Joyner pledging to no longer play him, and his own concerts getting canceled in Chicago earlier this year. But it is more than that. R. Kelly’s star has also dimmed, making it easier for audiences and critics to no longer be lulled by the charisma that made them ignore his monstrousness.
By far the hardest section 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 terms, her face lighting up as she talks about his “genius.” “He’s an all-around nice guy,” she proclaims before saying, “Robert is a master manipulator.” Sparkle, who testified against R. Kelly during his 2008 trial over child-pornography charges, is clearly still making peace with the fact that the man who mentored and nurtured her career is the same man who manipulated and abused her 14-year-old niece, who was featured being urinated on in that infamous tape. (That it is referred to so casually throughout the doc as “the pee tape” is a testament to how nonchalant the black community has and continues to be about the abuse of black girls.)
Every woman who speaks of her abuse throughout the documentary — each of them labeled as “survivors” under their names — tells a similar story. How R. Kelly started out as a goofy, open dude whose ease belied his immense stardom, one who shared his own history of sexual abuse at a young age by family members to win their trust. This façade would then give way to orders, rape, and isolation of various degrees, separating these women from the people they cared about and their own identities. The women mention how they weren’t allowed to speak to the people in R. Kelly’s life, but they also weren’t kept hidden. People in his circle knew.
So it is jarring to hear Sparkle talk about introducing her then-12-year-old niece to R. Kelly in order to grow her burgeoning rap talents. Sparkle even says that she knew to keep her eyes on her niece and never leave her alone in his presence. It’s here the docuseries taps into fertile ground that goes unexplored — how black women internalize messages about their self-worth and are betrayed by those closest to them. Sparkle is never pressed on the admittedly uneasy aspects of this story or why she would risk her niece’s safety for the chance at a thriving career. This leads to tensions between the hard work these women are doing being so vulnerable in front of the camera and the hard work the filmmakers aren’t doing in asking the complex questions that reveal both the nature of R.Kelly and how his abuse has persisted for so long.
This isn’t to say Surviving R. Kelly is without merit. Witnessing these women’s testimonies is bruising, for reasons personal and cultural. I felt a chill when Lizette Martinez, one of the survivors showcased here, mentioned meeting him at Aventura Mall, a mall I used to frequent as a teen growing up in Miami. I winced every time a teenager was referred to as a “woman,” another reminder of how black girls aren’t afforded childhoods. I was particularly moved whenever Jovante Cunningham, a former background singer of R. Kelly’s, appeared onscreen. She spoke of being a 14-year-old girl in R. Kelly’s world, becoming close to Aaliyah, and the cataclysmic reaction to finding out, firsthand, that he was raping Aaliyah. She’s forthright, reflective, and focused, even amid tears. These testimonies are evocative because they provide a face and voice to the abuse, as well as notions of how this world fails black girls and the rot the black community must face in order to make sure men like R. Kelly don’t evade justice. But the docuseries often undermines these testimonies. I lost count of how many scenes featured the women being asked questions like, “Can you describe the physical abuse?” only for their composure to crack and tears to fall, the camera never moving from their visage.
In its final episodes, Surviving R. Kelly swerves into surprising territory that turns its uneasy exploitative sheen into a glaring issue, and lays bare its journalistic failures. (Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago journalist who has been covering R. Kelly’s brutality for 18 years, is not a part of Surviving R. Kelly, as he’s making his own documentary. But his absence only highlights the narrative and journalistic holes.) In episode five, we watch as Michelle Gardner desperately searches for her daughter, Dominique, who met R. Kelly at 17 and hasn’t been seen by her family for about a year, as she’s suspected of being in what has been deemed R. Kelly’s “sex cult.” In that time, Michelle has only seen her daughter when a TMZ video, in which she hovers near the edge of the frame, was released. The camera crew follows Michelle as she searches hotels for Dominique. At one point she huddles in a corner, crying, her back turned to the camera. But she is given no privacy for the devastation she experiences. When Michelle finally does find her daughter, the cameras stay on her until she implores them to stop following them, as Dominique is uncomfortable with their presence.
Similarly uncomfortable is the story of Alice and Angelo Clary, who are followed by filmmakers as they travel to a Chicago recording studio that they learn may be housing their daughter, Azriel, also allegedly part of the same cult. The results aren’t as uplifting. It is heartbreaking and uncomfortable to witness these two parents as they scream from the street and throw rocks at windows, imploring their daughter — who they aren’t even sure is in the building — to come out.
Yes, there is value in bearing witness to these women’s testimonies. But too often, Surviving R. Kelly plays into moments that feel exploitative, and raise another troubling question: How much do women have to reveal in order for us to believe them?
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Lyric R. Cabral directed Surviving R. Kelly. In fact, Dream Hampton is the executive producer and showrunner. Cabral is directing a different documentary about R. Kelly.