Lifetime's bombshell docuseries premiered to acclaim in 2019, but behind the scenes, the original, nearly all-Black postproduction group protested the project's direction and walked out — only to see the show eventually fulfill its hopes.
Peggy Tachdjian broke her two-year silence on social media in mid-June. "Let's talk about performative allyship," the TV editor (The Politician, 911) wrote on Instagram amid Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. Tachdjian went on to describe how, while she was working at Bunim/Murray in 2018, several colleagues were editing the production company's docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. As an editor on Bunim/Murray's Born This Way, she observed the primarily Black Surviving R. Kelly editing team take a stand over the direction of the docuseries and resign together over a creative disagreement regarding how to empower survivors.
She believed the version of the show that aired, however, was an edited version of their original cut. The incident mattered now because the Emmy-nominated show had won a prestigious Peabody Award on June 10 and the original editing team hadn't been "acknowledged," Tachdjian added. The Surviving R. Kelly editors are "not allowed to talk about it, and I know it's because they've all signed NDAs," Tachdjian says of her post.
Tachdjian wasn't the only TV editor raising such concerns on Instagram around this time. Days after Bunim/Murray's June 2 posting of a black box for #BlackoutTuesday, four of five members of Surviving R. Kelly's first editing team — Daysha Broadway, Stephanie Filo, Bradinn French, Michael Griffin and Stephanie Lyra — each posted the same photo of members of their editing team on Instagram. Captions spoke about "white producers who ... feel they have more authority to tell black stories than the actual black storytellers" as well as a company "no longer align[ing] with the morals I was always taught" and being "proud to have stood up for what's right." (All signed nondisclosure agreements typical on reality show deal memos and cannot talk about the project in detail. Griffin did not post on social media.)
Though the best-selling, Grammy-winning Kelly had faced allegations of sexual misconduct for years and a child pornography trial (he was acquitted in 2008), Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly was able to do what other exposés over the years could not: bring outrage over his alleged behavior to a mainstream audience.
While a #MuteRKelly campaign had caused serious damage to the multiplatinum performer's popularity in 2017 and 2018, after the six-episode first season aired in January 2019, stations that had continued to play Kelly's music dropped him from their playlists; RCA Records and Kelly parted ways; and musicians who had worked with him before, including Lady Gaga and Ciara, asked for their collaborations to be removed from streaming services. But perhaps the most important development was renewed attention from law enforcement: Chicago's top prosecutor asked for Kelly accuser stories, which preceded the singer being charged with more than 20 counts in federal and state courts. (Kelly, who has denied all accusations of abuse, has been in jail on various charges since July 2019.) The series — followed by its sequel, Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning (2020) — was a critical and ratings success and drew praise for its powerful, painful narrative that focused on Kelly's alleged victims.
Though Surviving R. Kelly's impact is undeniable, the show's dynamics behind the scenes in postproduction were complicated, multiple sources tell THR. As Tachdjian shared in June, the primarily Black editing team that was first hired to shape the series' story and finesse its presentation was so discouraged by the direction the show was taking and their lack of say when they flagged changes they found problematic that they took the rare step of walking off the show as a group. "It's remarkable," one source at the Editors Guild who preferred to remain anonymous says of the walkout. While editor walkouts happen occasionally over employment-related concerns, the source couldn’t think of another instance where "a bunch of editors en masse decided to leave a job because of creative differences or political differences because of the content." Only now, after racial-justice protests have prompted a reckoning in Hollywood, is the editing team's story — and what it says about the precarious, opaque nature of editing unscripted series — coming into focus.
In spring 2018, an editing team comprising only people of color — an anomaly in the primarily white editing world, several editor sources tell THR — started work on Surviving R. Kelly. Of the four Black and one Latinx editors, four had worked at Bunim/Murray and all were "extremely talented," according to a network source who prefers to remain anonymous. The team was sold on the nonunion show as a serious documentary series that could bring Kelly's alleged actions to a greater audience. The demographics of the editing team suggested that production leaders — key members of whom are Black, including creator and executive producer Tamra Simmons, executive producer and Lifetime senior vp unscripted development and programming Brie Miranda Bryant, and executive producer dream hampton — were acknowledging that Black input was important at every level of the production process: "I was excited to see that Black post team," hampton tells THR, noting that she specifically requested a Black postproduction team in part because she hadn't seen many Black employees in the Bunim/Murray office.
The editors were given the direction to create slow-burn episodes that focused on sharing survivors' stories, which also is how the project was publicized. Though Bunim/Murray has offered sensitivity training for employees on such shows as Born This Way and I Am Cait in the past, it was not offered on the first season of Surviving R. Kelly despite its survivors' explicit stories of sexual abuse. The editing team watched hours of disturbing footage recounting sexual trauma and abuse as they began to assemble two long episodes that would introduce Kelly's background, his secret marriage to fellow performer Aaliyah when she was 15 years old and the Chicago Sun-Times' first exposé by Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch on allegations of Kelly's sexual misconduct, among other topics. During this time, a co-executive producer working closely with the group, Trevor Carlee, created a cold open to the show that cut between survivors sitting in front of a greenscreen: As their faces are obscured by clapperboards, each considers whether they would label themselves a "victim" or "survivor" over the audio track.
After the editors shared their first internal cut with colleagues at Bunim/Murray, Surviving R. Kelly EP and Kreativ Inc. CEO Joel Karsberg (Celebrity Wife Swap, Dropped) returned to them with notes asking for significant changes. Karsberg, who is white and Swedish, alongside EP Jesse Daniels, an American who also is white, had partnered with creator Simmons to bring the show to Lifetime. The notes asked to spend more time telling the story of Kelly's rise to music stardom and materially increase the use of his voice and image while emphasizing his talent and celebrity. The notes also asked to change up sequences that cut between survivors by adding in more narrative with Kelly because, the notes suggested, the audience might stop paying attention to the series without interruptions. The notes further argued that the show should be crafted more like a true-crime series and include reminders of Aaliyah's greatest hits, several sources say.
After weeks of viewing sensitive and disturbing footage of survivors telling their stories and extremely concerned about the direction of the high-stakes series, the core postproduction team resisted these particular changes. They voiced their opinion that, in aggregate, the proposed edits would center the alleged perpetrator and his talents instead of the survivors' stories. They also argued that the changes would sensationalize the show with true-crime storytelling devices, disregard its Black audience with extra context on icons like Kelly and Aaliyah, and be insensitive to survivors and the Black community. The editing team wanted to meet with Karsberg themselves to discuss the notes, but multiple subsequent meetings about the notes occurred without them, several sources close to the production tell THR. Karsberg instead worked primarily with the show's white supervising story producer, Lauren Feldman, and Carlee, who also is white, on the notes. (A representative for Bunim/Murray calls Karsberg's collaboration with people in these two positions "standard industry workflow.")
To the editors, it seemed as if their culturally specific concerns were being overridden and that they weren't even given the chance to sit down with the team and be heard. Editors' creative input on projects varies widely, depending on the show and company. Some experienced editors usually discuss notes with their executive producers, some rarely; still, editors' input is generally highly valued in the nonfiction space. Members of this particular team were accustomed to attending such notes meetings with EPs on other projects and were especially surprised that as a nearly all-Black editing team, they weren't invited to join.
When reached by THR, Lifetime executive producer Bryant insists that the notes on the internal cut reflected both her and Karsberg's opinions and therefore included a Black American perspective. Bryant sent her own set of notes to the postproduction team later, and they also called for more career context on Kelly and a different approach to Aaliyah, requests that, according to a network representative, were included to make the show accessible to a wide audience. A Lifetime source believes that a request in the first set of notes to implement fewer cuts between survivors is "misconstrued." "We wanted each survivor to have their moment," adds the source, noting that the show extended its order over the course of production. As for the "true-crime" note, "The idea was not to tell a true-crime story, but it was absolutely to expose [Kelly]," a rep for Bunim/Murray says. Network sources further argued that editors are hired to execute higher-ups' creative visions, not their own.
When they received the first set of notes, the editors were unaware that Bryant had input into those notes, nor did they have any reason to believe she did because, true to their name, "internal cuts" are usually only circulated within the production company. The similarities between Bryant's own notes, sent after editors expressed initial concerns, and the first set of notes they received convinced the team that the show was headed in a new direction.
After the series of meetings about the notes concluded without them, the editors implemented some notes but still were asked to make other changes the group felt didn't do justice to the survivors onscreen. And so, disagreeing with the vision for the show described in the notes — which they felt was opposed to how the show originally was sold to them — and feeling shut out of creative discussions and therefore tokenized, they took a major step. One Friday in June, four out of five editors and an assistant story editor, Edith Diaz-Mendez, told human resources they were resigning. The editors added that they wished to be removed from the show's credits, assuming that the end product would not include their work, multiple sources tell THR. The next week, Carlee and the final editor remaining, Griffin, resigned. Feldman was laid off the following Monday, after she had attended multiple creative meetings following the editor departures and handed in her story outlines. "I started in April and then stayed on pretty much as long as everybody else and a week longer, and then I was let go," Feldman said in a statement.
Network and production company sources claim the show's leaders were surprised by the mass resignation of the team: Editors — freelancers who live gig to gig and often fear being labeled "difficult" and therefore rendered less employable — rarely quit individually over creative differences, and it was unheard of to do so as a group. Days after the bulk of the editors walked off the show, Bunim/Murray made a conciliatory gesture: CEO Gil Goldschein met with the departing editors and Carlee and asked them to voice their concerns with the project; Bryant also later spoke with them. Once Surviving R. Kelly had premiered, an email penned by a Bunim/Murray executive reminded them of the NDAs they had signed for the project. A rep for Bunim/Murray says the email was sent to everyone involved in the show in response to a story leak on social media.
Though editors feared that Surviving R. Kelly would focus more on its namesake artist when they left in 2018, by the time the show premiered in 2019, it clearly revolved around survivors. And those familiar with the first editing team's initial cuts of the show saw the team's mark on the episodes that aired on Lifetime: Episodes one through four followed many basic storytelling beats that the first story and editing team had created, with some cuts appearing to be exactly the same, like the cold open, which Carlee had cut. The editors who followed the original team — five of whom were Black, plus two other people of color, out of 19 additional editors, according to credits listed on the Peabody website — had added new segments, interviews, B-roll and music; reordered sequences; and were responsible for the two additional episodes the first team did not work on, which expanded on the story and survivors' fight for justice. According to executive producer hampton, who worked to investigate the role of race and gender on Surviving R. Kelly, the final show emphasized those issues in part "because they [the editors] walked."
Creator and EP Simmons believes the show was always going to revolve around survivors in some way and that the editors' exit was "premature." "I believe that [the survivors] were always going to be able to tell their story," she says. "Now everyone has their interpretation of how the story should be told, and that's what you do in production — you work together as a team to come together to be able to do that." Simmons, who is Atlanta-based, extended a trip to Los Angeles to help with postproduction after the first editing team left.
When they saw a good amount of their work onscreen, some in the original editing group asked for credit to be restored on the first four episodes; Bunim/Murray eventually agreed to the restoration of credit on the first two (Lyra, who started work after her colleagues, received credit on one episode). Carlee and the first team of editors are credited on episodes listed on IMDb, where users can self-submit credits (IMDb does not confirm sources of information on their website with press). The editors were not credited in the version of the show streaming on Netflix (not even on the first two episodes) until the weekend before this story ran, after which their names were included in episode credits. They are not credited on Google Play and YouTube but are credited in the version streaming on Amazon Prime.
After THR began making inquiries about the editors not being credited on the show's Peabody Awards page, the editors' names were instated on the awards site. A network representative says that their exclusion resulted from Lifetime submitting the initial credits it was provided for the show — before the editors asked for credit back — to the Peabody Awards in January 2020, more than a year after the show premiered.
In statements to THR, Bunim/Murray Productions, Kreativ Inc. and Lifetime's Bryant emphasized that the show was the result of a large team. "Our intent and priority was always to give a voice to the women who were victimized by R. Kelly," Bunim/Murray Productions and Kreativ Inc. said. "From the start, our goal was to enlist a diverse group, both in front of and behind the camera, to ensure the best and most accurate retelling of these women's stories. This was a complex production, and so many people are responsible for what finally made it to air." Bryant added: "Surviving R. Kelly has always been about the survivors. Every great project has a variety of creative input and equally, a variety of creative differences and points of view, but ultimately, Surviving R. Kelly never wavered from our commitment to these women. The contribution of so many people made this documentary possible, and together, we were able to make a significant impact to our culture."
In her own statement, hampton took a stand for the editors: "The worst part about thinking about these larger issues, like sidelining Black editors on a project this sensitive, is that it's doubtful the people who need to will take an honest look at this. Instead, they focus on personality 'problems' and hierarchical protocols rather than the real issues. People will rush to defend themselves and change the optics rather than the way they work and do business." Hampton, who also executive produced Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Impact, wants to hire the first season's editing team when one of her upcoming projects reaches the editing stage.
When reached by THR, several members of the first postproduction team emphasized that they could not talk in detail about the production because of NDAs. However, several gave statements. Some expressed disappointment with how their creative input was received: "I'm risking my whole career by even giving you a quote," editor Filo says. "The thing that has been missed across the board is nuance. When dealing with race-specific topics, there is so much nuance and sensitivity that is needed on shows like this. Why is the response to what happened to the original team to gaslight those involved and just pretend their experiences weren't valid?"
Feldman, the supervising story producer, adds: "At the end of the day, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly became exactly what we all worked for it to become. Whether we as a team were acknowledged properly or not, we know the truth. The survivors' voices were heard, and justice is finally being served. However, I am extremely disappointed with the process and everything it took to get there. BMP should have done more for its employees, learned from this and become better for it, but that didn't happen."
Others expressed that they did not want this story to downplay the accomplishments of editors who followed the first team, nor that of creatives in postproduction and otherwise who helped make the aired show what it was. "I'd never want to take away anything the editors that followed worked very hard on. And I'm very happy with the end result of the documentary," editor Broadway said. "I do however think that BMP had been very comfortable having two or three Black editors on staff over decades and that has simply got to change." (In a statement, Bunim/Murray noted, "Since keeping statistics starting in 2008, the company has hired close to 3,000 employees who have declared themselves Black or POC.")
Editor French, in his statement, added: "I believe all who contributed to this project should be recognized and celebrated for it, as it was a harrowing emotional and physical experience for anybody who was involved with it but ultimately worth seeking justice for. I congratulate all of the creative teams for their tireless work, and I also congratulate Bunim/Murray and Lifetime for putting this out, and I hope that it reflects the importance of having active, non-token representation in production, postproduction and executive staff."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.