close reads

Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly Ask Too Much of Victims

James Safechuck in Leaving Neverland. Photo: HBO

“Is this camera on me?”

Looking directly at us — the public, his fans, his enablers, our culture — R. Kelly implored us to answer this question during an explosive CBS interview with Gayle King last week. To me, though, his question didn’t seem to be an inquiry into the location of the camera, but a desperate plea and an aggressive challenge. Have you forgotten who I am? Are you still loyal? Am I still the center of your attention?

Through accusations of sexual assault, physical abuse, and kidnapping, R. Kelly’s narrative has remained obdurate. He paints his accusers as lying whores, and the society that dares even mention these accusations as unforgivably racist, trying to persecute a successful black man. These justifications and excuses are eerily resonant of the late Michael Jackson (and now, his estate and family members), who attempted to squash accusations of child sex abuse by insisting that they were plots to steal his fortune and ruin his impact on black culture.

These narratives endured (and still endure). But they are now being complicated by the release of two explosive documentaries detailing accusations of assault against the singers. Leaving Neverland features two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck (now 36 and 41, respectively) who claim they were assaulted by Jackson from early childhood to adolescence. Surviving R. Kelly features numerous women — among them Lisa Van Allen and Jerhonda Pace — who painstakingly recount decades of alleged pathological abuse and sexual assault perpetrated by R. Kelly against black girls and women.

Unfortunately for R. Kelly and Jackson, they no longer command the attention of society’s gaze. Instead, we have turned our attention to their alleged victims, who are challenging enduring narratives with excruciatingly detailed retellings of their pain. As viewers, we hang on every word, analyze every gesture. Jackson and R. Kelly’s alleged victims are the subjects of these documentaries, squirming underneath our collective and judgmental microscope.

Watching these documentaries and observing the aftermath, it’s easy to see that R. Kelly’s paranoia is justified. The camera has shifted from him, and from Jackson, whose postmortem estate is valued at billions.

But while sexual assault documentaries are an eminently powerful medium — they spark conversations, challenge societal norms, and increase our recognition of the harm of sexual assault — they are not as subversive as we might be tempted to believe. In many ways, they actually serve as extensions of our victim-blaming society. The shifting of the camera — from the celebrity perpetrator to the celebrity’s victim — demands an emotional labor and a level of exposure that reveals how entrenched we are in rape culture, even as we attempt to pass a sweeping referendum on it.

A core component of victim-blaming attitudes is the insatiable need for details. What were they wearing? Is he gay? How many men has she slept with? In this respect, Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly reinforce those urges. They anticipate and answer all our invasive questions, disregarding the pain that it clearly causes the survivors. In particular, both documentaries represent how high the burden of proof is for male-identified survivors and black women, who are not widely seen as the “perfect” victims. In both, they must emotionally impact us in order to be believed. Tight camera shots show Robson and Safechuck wince when they recount the abuse they faced at Jackson’s hands. Safechuck seems extremely uncomfortable describing the sexual stimulation he experienced at age 8, when Jackson performed oral sex on him. The women who allege that R. Kelly abused them are often unable to finish their sentences, sometimes needing a moment of silence to bury their heads in their hands. Allen stammers and looks violated as she recounts how R. Kelly forced her to have sex with younger teenage girls. At one point, Pace leaves the set, overcome when speaking about how R. Kelly starved her for three days.

Much of the same information in the documentaries was available amid these scandals, just without the public exorcism of detailed trauma. We knew that Jackson invited little boys he wasn’t related to into his bed with startling frequency. We knew his relationships with children were inappropriate, and that some of those children claimed they were sexually abused. We knew that R. Kelly had married singer Aaliyah when she was 15, and he was 28. We had a video clearly showing him urinating on a 14-year-old. We knew more than enough. Why are these graphic details, voice recordings, pictures, tapes, and engaging narrative precursors to belief? As we consume this burgeoning genre, we suspend or grant belief based on how satiated we are with the invasive details we’re given. The documentary knows this, and it doesn’t challenge it.

It’s also telling that the medium through which we fell in love with Jackson and R. Kelly is the medium through which we condemn them. They were genius-level entertainers, who captivated the world through the art they produced. As these documentaries show us, victims can begin to be heard when they replace their perpetrator’s influence with cultural (and monetary) influence of their own. Both have been enormous cultural events. According to Lifetime, 2.1 million people (higher than the network’s average) tuned in to watch Surviving R. Kelly, when it first premiered. As its third most-watched documentary in a decade, Leaving Neverland was a boon for HBO. It’s fair to reason that these documentaries have generated a significant amount of money for the networks and streaming services.

What does it say about our society that we force victims to contribute to our entertainment before we can believe them? What does it say about our unhealthy obsession with celebrities that we refuse to admit when they’re monsters unless we’re inundated with graphic proof?

The sexual assault documentary is a powerful genre. But as the camera shifts from the perpetrator to the victim, so, too, does the burden of proof. If the exposure of trauma and violence becomes entertainment, will the pain of sexual assault survivors be commercialized, as we’ve seen happen with the true-crime genre? Will survivors be expected to expose every graphic detail of their violation to be believed? These documentaries’ power is derived from their graphic content, but our need for that graphic content is what weakens the power of our movements to end rape culture.

Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly Ask a Lot of Victims