'Surviving R. Kelly' Filmmaker: How I Took Down the Incarcerated Singer (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Lifetime
'Surviving R. Kelly'

Emmy-nominated dream hampton chronicles her 19-year pursuit of the recording artist, now in jail facing sex crimes charges.

During the summer of 2000, I was a contributing writer at Vibe magazine. The editor asked me if I'd fly to Chicago, close neighbor to my hometown of Detroit, to profile R. Kelly. The promise was studio access as he recorded his fourth solo album, but it came with a warning from his longtime publicist Regina Daniels. I was not to ask about his 1994 marriage to the then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah.

They'd both publicly denied the marriage ever happened and seemed jointly committed to silence. I ignored his camp's demand. I asked. He silently glared at me. When the exchange was included in the profile, he got my number, called me and yelled at me. "You know you wasn't supposed to include that," I remember him saying, as if I were some naughty child and not a magazine writer.

The cover story, an otherwise softball profile, was on newsstands the fall of 2000. On Dec. 21, 2000, music critic Jim DeRogatis reported what should have been a career-ending piece about R. Kelly — that he'd settled a lawsuit with vocalist Tiffany Hawkins. She'd alleged that he had unlawful sexual contact with her when she was 16. Jim's reporting was beginning to establish that R. Kelly was a predator with a pattern. Jim spent the next two decades proving as much, but no one seemed to care. The girls were young, black and, besides Aaliyah, nameless. R. Kelly was a huge talent with seemingly unending success.

I wasn't Chicago-based, so I didn't know about what black Chicagoans euphemistically called R. Kelly's "preference for young girls." I'd spent my four to five days with R. Kelly like many of the girls and women who accused him of sexual and physical abuse would later describe — in his studio watching him work and work out. His various assistants would send for food, and he'd be most productive from midnight to sunrise. But what I'd not paid attention to were the closed doors. Once, one opened and I saw a few teenaged groups. I'd been in studios before, and young artists were not uncommon. I assumed they were vocalists he was developing for his new vanity label. When Jim's reporting was published, I was so disappointed that I'd missed the real story that I stopped writing profiles for years. I'd been in Jeffrey Dahmer's kitchen and not opened the fridge.

Less than a year later, a videotape of what absolutely looked like R. Kelly committing statutory rape went viral where bootleg urban black films were sold — in gas stations and barber shops, often in plain sight. He was charged in 2002 with crimes related to that tape, only after the 14-year-old's aunt identified her to an investigator. The 2008 trial led to a "not guilty" verdict.

When the creative team at Bunim Murray invited me to helm Surviving R. Kelly, I understood it partly as a penance. Sure, I'd put myself on punishment, refusing celebrity profiles. I'd even boycotted the singer. Meanwhile, Jim DeRogatis was reporting about R. Kelly preying on a new generation of girls and young women — some whose parents were younger than him by nearly a decade. I began my career as a music critic, taking on Dr. Dre for publicly and brutally assaulting TV host Dee Barnes in 1991. I'd never taken on R. Kelly, and it was time.

I had no idea Surviving R. Kelly would have any impact. Even after the #MeToo moment was costing powerful men their careers and reputations, Jim's reporting still seemed like screams into the void. While we were in production, the BBC aired a doc that featured some of the women in our project. It didn't move the needle. Still, we kept our heads down and told a story that needed six episodes, two more than we'd planned. We worked to center the survivors, to give them space to unpack their stories with dignity.

I knew our series would shift the conversation when I monitored Twitter its first night. I recognized the serious way black women in particular were talking — not just about R. Kelly but about the ways justice is denied to black women victims of gender and sexual violence. What I didn't know was that Chicago District Attorney Kim Foxx and federal agents also were watching. When Foxx publicly asked other potential victims to contact her office, I hoped that some of the many women we'd talked to — women who'd refused to come on camera but provided corroboration — might accept her invitation.

When I first talked to Lifetime senior vp Brie Bryant before coming on to Surviving R. Kelly as showrunner, I confessed to having a point of view — of wanting justice, even if that justice was just fans and supporters finally turning away from him. My highest hope was the work would offer narrative support and serve as a tool to the organizers and advocates who spend their lives fighting for justice for black girls and women who've survived gender and sexual violence. R. Kelly earned the reckoning he's experiencing. But the real breakthrough is the brave way his survivors shared with us. They are imperfect women with complicated lives, and through their courage we are having incredibly difficult conversations about a kind of violence we've avoided confronting for too long.

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.