The decades-overdue downfall of R. Kelly sounds like a plot ripped straight out of a Lifetime special, but thanks to Surviving R. Kelly, it’s the reality presently staring the Pied Piper of R&B in the face. Earlier this month, Lifetime aired the bombshell six-part series — a painstakingly detailed rehashing of over 25 years of alleged sexual abuse committed by Kelly — featuring the accounts of several women who say he violated them when they were underage. The women’s stories are told in their own words, alongside photographs from the eras these alleged crimes happened, and corroborated by interviews with witnesses. Despite his persistent denial of their charges, it appears for the first time in his career, time might finally be up for R. Kelly. So how did Lifetime get to be the one to potentially undo him? The answer is an undertaking that took over a year to develop.
In July 2017, longtime Kelly beat reporter Jim DeRogatis published an explosive piece for BuzzFeed alleging that Kelly has for years been holding women hostage as part of a “sex cult.” The report came 16 years after DeRogatis first broke the story that Kelly had performed lewd sexual acts on a child on tape, but in the trial that followed, Kelly was acquitted because the jury could not agree on the identity of the girl in the tape, allowing his alleged misconduct to fade from public memory. When new charges surfaced in DeRogatis’s 2017 report, Kreativ Inc./Bunim-Murray film producers Jesse Daniels and Tamra Simmons saw a pivotal opening to revisit Kelly’s history. “These stories were so powerful, but at the same time, they’re not being held in the same way as some of the other stories that were being reported on about other people,” Daniels told Vulture, adding that the #MeToo movement later in the year heightened that discrepancy. In their own independent research in the months that followed, Daniels and Simmons got the parents of one alleged victim, Jocelyn Savage, onboard and began “building trust” with a network of other survivors willing to cooperate for a potential documentary.
At that point, the seeds for the project were in place: Three survivors, including Jerhonda Pace, and two sets of parents signed on to participate. Daniels and Simmons began shopping the idea in late 2017, taking it to multiple networks, including all the major black-audience-targeted channels, and received a mix of interest and hesitation. “This is a subject matter dealing with a high-profile celebrity and that certainly made some people more nervous than others,” Daniels says, declining to mention any networks by name. Journalist and filmmaker Dream Hampton, who became an executive producer and showrunner for the doc after the Lifetime pickup, added, “I’m sure BET could’ve done it a million times if they wanted to. Instead, they booked him on their award shows.” The immediate difference with Lifetime, Daniels recalls, was it “felt like they were all-in from the beginning.” “We didn’t look back after that,” he says.
Long known for telling true-crime stories focused on women’s survival — however embellished for the screen — Lifetime felt the film aligned with its brand. But with the documentary lacking newsiness, the network had to come up with an angle to attract viewership. “The conversation then became, How do you make the strongest platform possible for these women?” Lifetime exec Brie Bryant says. “The idea was to make it a timeline doc and to start as early as possible so that we could factually lay out what happened and how it happened.” Daniels agreed: “In order to believe what’s happening now, we had to establish patterns that date back 30 years.”
In May 2018, Lifetime initially ordered the film as a 90-minute documentary, and Daniels brought on Hampton to conduct the on-camera interviews with survivors. But as the interviewee pool ballooned past 50 people — and the filmmakers ultimately had six hours of edited footage after filming ended in December — a six-part docuseries made the most sense. Because its final episodes repurpose some of DeRogatis’s reporting and speak to his sources, Bunim-Murray approached him to be involved. However, DeRogatis declined due to creative differences and his own separate R. Kelly doc in the works with BuzzFeed. “I had no confidence the team that brought us the Real World and Keeping Up With the Kardashians would do journalism,” he told Vulture. “But I have enormous respect for Dream Hampton. Everything that was good about that series was thanks to her.”
But before she signed on, Hampton was equally skeptical of Bunim-Murray and Lifetime. “I didn’t want to get involved,” she told Vulture. “I knew Bunim-Murray produced the Real World and the thing about the sisters [Keeping Up With the Kardashians], but I’d never watched. And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly.’” When Bunim-Murray assured her that it’d be a documentary, not a scripted biopic, and a chance to do right by the black women Kelly allegedly harmed, Hampton changed her tune: “The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” (That Hampton had profiled R. Kelly in 2000, months before DeRogatis’s reporting on his alleged sex crimes broke, also still haunted her. “I failed to open Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge,” she says.)
The interview process proved to be an uphill battle. Only two musicians, John Legend and Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, agreed to speak on camera with Hampton about Kelly. And just as as his label, RCA, has remained tight-lipped to the media on all matters R. Kelly, Hampton didn’t get far with label execs either. She recalls Barry Weiss, the former head of RCA, emailing her for a list of the survivors being interviewed for the project, “like he was gonna somehow scope our production” rather than agree to face the camera himself. Hampton also spoke to someone at RCA who’d worked closely with him for two decades, but “just couldn’t bring herself to come on camera.”
The stakes involved with interviewing the survivors proved even higher. Though Surviving R. Kelly shares the stories of several women who’d previously spoken out, Daniels and Simmons say they talked to new accusers who weren’t ready to come forward on camera and so were not included in the final documentary. From a legal stance, the vetting process for those who did consent to appear had to be exhaustive. “I think I have a law degree now,” Simmons says. Meanwhile, Bunim-Murray attorneys were present in the room during all of Hampton’s interviews with the alleged victims. “I was able to bear witness, but even the questions I had to ask felt more like a deposition,” she says. “Because we had to anticipate at any moment R. Kelly suing us.” Lifetime reps tell Vulture that no lawsuit has yet been filed, and the network and producers have not heard from Kelly, though he has allegedly retaliated against some of the women in the doc.
A month before the film’s premiere, a New York City screening did come to a startling halt when an anonymous call about a gun threat forced the theater to be evacuated. Several of the survivors were in attendance. “It was heartbreaking to look at those survivors’ faces and see and hear that they felt silenced again,” Bryant says. The threat has since been traced back to a Kelly associate. But Bryant believes that plan to keep the documentary from the public only drummed up interest about what someone so badly wanted to hide. Since the doc’s premiere, Lifetime says more than 24 million people have tuned in, with a “higher than usual” percentage of them being African-American. Bryant says of that ratings surge, “It means that stories like this can actually work and diverse content can actually work. And the more people that show up the way that they did today opens up doors, not just at Lifetime but at other networks.”
As a direct result of Surviving R. Kelly, at least three states, including Georgia, Illinois, and New York, are reportedly building criminal cases against Kelly. Meanwhile, artists like Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper have broken their silence to say that they were wrong to work with Kelly despite knowing what they knew about his abuse, and have scrubbed their collaborations from streaming services. But Bryant says Lifetime has not yet made any decisions on a follow-up special about these new developments. She and the producers instead intend on closely monitoring the continued fallout. “The conversations that are happening are almost bigger than the doc,” Daniels says.