The strength of the #MeToo movement has brought about a resurgence in trying to bring predators to justice, but many have escaped its grasp for years. In the case of R. Kelly, it’s been decades. This new documentary series produced by Lifetime, from filmmaker and cultural critic Dream Hampton, attempts to redirect our newly found outrage on behalf of black women and girls, and towards one of the powerful men who’s been hiding in plain sight since the early 1990’s.
The six-part series chronicles R&B artist and producer R. Kelly’s childhood, in which he is portrayed though his own words and those of his younger brother, to have been a victim of sexual abuse himself, who then grew up to become an abuser, as he began preying on teenage girls from his own former high school as early as his twenties. After finding success in the music industry in Chicago, he quickly used his status as a powerful artist with a posse of assistants and managers around him to recruit young girls who wanted to break into the industry, gain their trust and solicit sexual favors from them, turning them subservient to him. Like most predators, he preyed on the weak, girls from underprivileged families, and groomed them to become submissive to him as he showered them with attention, gifts, material riches and promises of big futures.
The documentary employs interviews with Kelly’s family members, former assistants and managers, revealing just how openly he indulged in his abusive and predatory lifestyle, with a cadre of men surrounding him who enabled and facilitated this behavior, assisting in the recruitment of girls as young as 12, from as far back as the early 90’s. Like others of his ilk (Michael Jackson comes to mind) many incidents played out in plain sight, such as his 1994 marriage to his 15-year-old protege Aaliyah, when he was 27, to the infamous “pee tape” of him urinating on a 14-year-old that found its way onto the internet and became a massive scandal in 2002. Throughout the scandals, R. Kelly produced hits that made him more or less untouchable in the industry, allowing the larger public to brush aside his behavior, as the black community remained somewhat polarized, always an issue when celebrity and wealth is involved, as we know.
The series focuses on the victims, interviewing multiple survivors of Kelly’s, who have now come forward to tell their stories, which range from child molestation over decades to the more recent revelations that he ran a sex cult out of his Atlanta mansion where women were locked up in rooms, used as sex slaves, beaten, and starved among other tortures. The horrific details of this behavior are explained to devastating effect in title cards that reveal how and at what age each woman met R. Kelly and show that he was recruiting teenagers during his 2008 trial for child pornography regarding the infamous video, on which he was acquitted of all charges. Artists continued to work with him throughout the scandals, as the industry supported him or at best ignored the damning allegations and settlements over the years, and the series challenges his continued acceptance in the black community, as the devaluation of black women and girls becomes a primary concern. One wonders whether Kelly would have been acquitted if video evidence showed him abusing underage white teenagers, as one juror is interviewed and freely admits to not believing the victims because he didn’t like the way they “looked.” Even Chance the Rapper, one of the few artists to agree to be interviewed for the series (John Legend is another), admits on camera that he didn’t value the accuser’s stories because they were black women.
This documentary is highly emotional advocacy journalism at its core, employing reality show tactics in some of the later episodes as producers follow the parents of current victims still in R. Kelly’s circle, as he cuts them off from all family members and the outside world, brainwashing them to become entirely dependent on him (one survivor details his harrowing confession that some of the women have been with him for up to 15 years, including the girl in the video, who never came forward to accuse him publicly). Several parents are still attempting to get their daughters back, as his post-trial tactic was to recruit vulnerable women of legal age or just below, so that when they came of age he could snap them away from their families and no legal action could be taken. Reality show producing tactics aside, it is the women’s stories that are most important to reveal, and the plea for action taken against the man who has escaped justice for his crimes can still be heard by the public (some investigations in Atlanta and Chicago have already been spurred again in response to the outcry). Turning the focus of the #MeToo movement (whose founder Tarana Burke is prominently featured here) back on the stories of black women and girls is an important cause to be spotlighted, and attempts to gain justice once more over longtime predators (and in the music industry overall, which has not made as much of an effort to purge itself of its criminals) make this a worthy and important series that wants to make a real world impact and challenge a new generation (as well as the old) to become aware of the kind of man R. Kelly is and not let him off the hook this time. I think it succeeded in its aims.