6:45am PT by Jackie Strause
'Surviving R. Kelly' Bosses Say 'Part 2' Is for the Survivors: "We Had a Sense of Responsibility"
Surviving R. Kelly broke ratings records, ignited a social media firestorm and served as the catalyst for the slate of federal and state criminal sex abuse charges that embattled artist R. Kelly is currently facing.
After the release of the Lifetime docuseries in early 2019, the response was instant and the legal ramifications for the singer were swift. Despite the success of the powerful six-part series, however, the team behind the documentary were hesitant to start working on a follow-up.
"We were all pretty nervous about what had just occurred and how much impact the doc had had, and the conversation around it. We didn’t want to jeopardize it," Brie Miranda Bryant, Lifetime's senior vp unscripted development and programming, tells The Hollywood Reporter in a conversation with fellow executive producer Jesse Daniels.
But now, one year after the Emmy-nominated Surviving R. Kelly's release, the producing team is back with a five-part sequel that will again air across three nights on Lifetime, starting on Thursday. (Part 1 was watched by more than 26.8 million people and then streamed by another 26 million.) The new series explores the off-camera triumphs and ramifications of Surviving R. Kelly by following the ongoing case against Kelly (his first trial date is set for April 2020) while also exploring the backlash and trauma endured by the survivors and participants who came forward with their stories of sexual violence and abuse.
In Part 1, the producers had more than 50 accusers and participants wanting to be involved. That number grew to more than 70 for Part 2. Seven survivors went on the record the first time around and 10 speak for Part 2.
Below, in a chat with THR, Bryant and Daniels shed light on their journey to bringing Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning to the screen and how they applied lessons learned from the first part. "The same executive producing team came back together, so we all had many discussions about how we wanted to tackle Part 2 the right way," says Daniels.
At what point did you realize you needed to do a follow-up to Surviving R. Kelly?
Brie Miranda Bryant: At first we were adamantly against doing a Part 2. The discussion came up post-Part 1 with everyone asking when there was going to be a Part 2 and, "have we considered it?" The answer was, "Absolutely not." We were all pretty nervous about what had just occurred and how much impact the doc had had, and the conversation around it. We didn’t want to jeopardize it. There was a lot more that we knew at that point, and then more started coming out after the docuseries released, but we were really not sure if we could do the same thing that we did for Part 1 for a Part 2.
At some point, a reporter shared a conversation that they had had with authorities where clear evidence of tapes and pictures of sexual abuse of minors had been obtained and those charges were dropped, and the reporter wanted to know why. And the answer the reporter got from those authorities was, “They’re not our girls.” And I think once we heard that story, we knew that we had to do a Part 2. Just for humanity’s sake. For believability. For the survivors who had been questioned after the doc about the validity of their stories. And for the parents who had also been called to the table. So that’s how Part 2 came around; about four months after.
Jesse Daniels: It was several months into [the docuseries being out]. As Brie said, we didn’t want to do a Part 2. We were proud of what we had done. But, ultimately, I remember that conversation vividly and that really became our mission statement for Part 2; we felt like we had a sense of responsibility now. We knew that we had to go deeper into some areas we couldn’t before with Part 1 and so that became our mission.
Were you able to get any clarity on those tapes from the reporter's story when you started your research?
Bryant: They had already been obtained by authorities prior to the first trial [of R. Kelly in 2008]. These were the tapes from Polk County, Florida [in 2003]. He was arrested in Polk County for the Chicago warrant and at the time, they obtained tapes from video cameras that I guess had stills and even images and they pressed charges, but eventually those charges were dropped because they didn’t have a search warrant.
Part 2 begins by catching viewers up on everything that has happened since the release of the docuseries in January 2019. With such a large audience already established, how did you strike that balance to appeal to both returning and new viewers?
Bryant: I liken Part 1 and Part 2 to a jigsaw puzzle, where you start collecting all these pieces but you don’t know what the front of the box looks like. In that regard, Part 1 for us is no different than Part 2. When we were sitting in interviews with the Rodgers family not knowing everything that had happened after the premiere screening of Part 1 of the documentary, that was heartbreaking and jaw-dropping for us. We just thought it made sense to start where we had left off and that seemed to be the beginning of it. But a lot of it was moving pieces around to see what cohesively fit. [Faith Rodgers sued R. Kelly for sexual battery and knowingly infecting her with an STD after the doc released.]
R. Kelly's brothers, Bruce and Carey Kelly, return in Part 2 to paint a picture of the abuse R. Kelly endured in his upbringing. How has their outlook changed on their brother between the two docuseries?
Bryant: That's a good question.
Daniels: I don’t know if their outlook has changed about him, but I think that for the family, they’re sad they couldn’t find a way to be together now. I think they maybe would have changed things in the past if they could have. You really see a family torn apart by this.
Bryant: You really saw in Part 1 that they were conflicted. This is their brother; they love their brother. And I don’t think that really changed in interviews from Part 1 to Part 2. In Part 2, they became a little more comfortable with sharing a little bit more than they did in Part 1. I think because a lot of things started coming out and because the more you talk about it, and in the second round of interviews, the harder it is to hold things back.
Part 2 explores the victim-blaming and the parent-blaming against the women and families who spoke out. You also look at the intersection of race and sexual violence, and how that plays into these victims being heard. Why were these the key themes you wanted to focus on after the experience of doing Part 1?
Daniels: After it came out, our survivors were very proud of what they had done. They were getting a huge tidal wave of messages and notes from people who said their life had changed for the better, that it helped them and their families get through some of the hardest periods of their life and so on. But at the same time, they also received all kinds of backlash and criticism and trolling from people online and, as much as you want to turn your back on that, it’s not hard for it to find you. We wanted to face that head on this year. What was it like to be a survivor and to come out publicly? And explore that sacrifice. What is that experience like? The good, the bad, the ugly, everything in between. You did see a lot of survivors face all kinds of backlash from either fans or people who didn’t fully watch the story, but ultimately you realize that why they’re doing it is for a larger reason. It’s for themselves. It’s for other survivors out there.
There are some returning interviewees, along with new survivors speaking out in Part 2. What was the process like of putting this group of women together?
Bryant: There was a blueprint that was already laid down by journalists like Jim DeRogatis [author of Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly and longtime music reporter on the case]. In speaking with him, we knew that he had interviewed himself over 48 girls and women over the course of following the story. So for every single person that sat down, there was always the question at the end: "Is there anyone else that you think we should talk to or you think would want to talk to us?" And that’s really the truth of how anyone ended up sitting down. Either they were recommended or someone who sat down felt good enough about the process that they connected them with the team. There are people who are a part of this very long and sad story that we wanted to have on camera and sometimes that worked out and sometimes that didn’t. But I think the entire team believed that everybody who was supposed to sit down for Part 1 or Part 2 did. That everything was sort of just meant to be the way it ended up happening.
Part 1 made such an impact. What are your hopes for Part 2 now that R. Kelly is in custody?
Daniels: We hope to continue to spark larger conversations around sexual violence and how we as a society have a responsibility to support victims of it. R. Kelly is just one person — there are many other victims out there that need support and help on their way to becoming survivors of abuse and trauma. None of this will change overnight, but what Surviving R. Kelly has done is opened up the conversation so that these patterns have less of a chance of continuing.
Bryant: We hope that Part 2 continues to contribute to the conversation around ending sexual violence. We hope that people continue to uplift the survivors who have been brave enough to share their stories with the world. And, most importantly, we hope that our survivors find more peace in their lives moving forward.
Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning airs across three nights on Lifetime, beginning Jan. 2 at 9 p.m.
Interview edited for length and clarity.