'Surviving R. Kelly': TV Review

It takes a village to raze a child.
1/3/2019

Lifetime's riveting docuseries traces R. Kelly's history of abusing young girls and reminds us that monstrous behavior can't exist without enablers.

If a woman admits on camera that she was afraid of giving birth to a baby girl because she feared her abusive boyfriend would rape the little girl when she grew older, believe her. It doesn't matter if the man sang beautiful words or awoke sexual feelings in you or told you he believed he could fly. Believe the woman who lived with a tyrant and knew him well enough to trust he could rape his own daughter.

Stories of sexual, physical, emotional and reproductive abuse are finally seeing the sun after decades of decomposing in the dark. The normalization of abuse is a calamity on a global scale, but we typically only pay attention to the experiences of white victims. Which is exactly what makes Lifetime's raw and arresting docuseries Surviving R. Kelly — a six-part treatise on how R&B icon R. Kelly has systematically assaulted, brainwashed and degraded both teenage girls and adult women throughout his career — so vital. It's not only a familiar #MeToo narrative about how show business exploits young women; it's also a gutting testament to how society has allowed a monster to thrive simply because his victims are young black women.

Utilizing historical footage, expert interviews and survivors' testimonies, the documentary traces how a shy child with a probable learning disability blossomed as a teenage musical prodigy and eventually became an R&B superstar. Executive producer Dream Hampton and her team clearly have some measured empathy for Kelly, using interviews with his brothers Carey and Bruce to discuss Robert's childhood incest trauma, but they don't excuse Kelly's abusiveness with this fact — they only seek to connect domineering behavior with lost power. The first few episodes excavate every rumor you've ever heard about the singer: his secret marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah; the infamous urination video and subsequent child pornography acquittal; the supposed starvation "sex cult" he established to lock away vulnerable young women in his multiple mansions. But the documentary molts Kelly in the final few episodes, allowing stories from his victims and their grieving parents to take flight.

Countless women come forward here to discuss how Kelly, a self-styled "Pied Piper," charmed them at high schools, shopping malls or concert venues, promising to nourish their talents and help them become the performers they aspired to be. (He even picked up a 14-year-old fan outside the courthouse at his child pornography trial.) Young singers and dancers flocked to him, gave him their hopes and dreams, and he in turn claimed their bodies, ensuring their talents would never flourish and eclipse his own. The details are shocking. Physical violence for having a favorite basketball team that wasn't his. Starvation as punishment. Women locked in their bedrooms, expected to use buckets to relieve themselves. A former employee describes how Kelly forced a young woman to dress in men's clothing and facial hair to be his "boy toy."

Don't be fooled by the sensationalistic filmmaking tactics here, the Hard Copy-ness of using tense industrial sound design to amplify the horror or the overly produced and invasive scenes documenting attempts to rescue these women. While it's beneath the dignity of this content to mirror a lurid cable true-crime show, the impressive array of experts' interviews more than makes up for the cheap visual cues. We hear from music journalists, clinical psychologists, industry colleagues, fellow musicians, activists, former employees and childhood mentors who help us understand the complexities of domestic violence. You're reminded that the heart of abuse is not just what occurs between two people, but what occurs between a victim and society. 

Not to use the dreaded e-word here, but this series is an incredible educational tool without being overtly didactic, luring viewers with appalling details of a real-life Dracula while using psychology and social analysis to identify how Kelly was able to foster a cult of personality to mask private enormity. I only wish Surviving R. Kelly had included a more thorough racial analysis, instead of merely telling us that R. Kelly means a lot to black people or that Americans are reluctant to believe or help young black girls. I wanted these experts to parse out more of the history of this phenomenon and the role of masculinity in the black community. (They come close to this in a chilling scene where Kelly's brother Bruce excuses Robert by admitting other Kelly men exhibit similar controlling behavior with their partners: "We all have our ways with our girls.")

Yes, this documentary is about R. Kelly, but it's actually not at all about R. Kelly. It's really about the vile systems, networks and enablers that allow this behavior to thrive. You cannot spend your lifetime methodically humiliating, manipulating and infantilizing vulnerable young women without: an entourage to help you groom your victims; employees who maintain your house of horrors; lawyers who protect you from prosecution; journalists who coddle you with softball questions; industry colleagues who continue to fatten your pockets; fellow musicians who laud your genius; fans who stick their heads in the sand and continue to support you; cop friends who warn you when families are calling them about their missing daughters; and relatives who downplay your predilection for young teenagers ("Everyone has preferences," says Bruce). Unspoken here: the countless big-name artists who have worked closely with Kelly over the years and refused to speak on camera for this project. As my father used to say, follow the money trail.

This is, of course, the history of rock 'n' roll. As journalist Ann Powers points out, this is Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and the Beatles and David Bowie. These are the rumors that have swirled around about Jared Leto and Maynard James Keenan's predatory behavior for decades. (I have desperately wanted to see Tool in concert for almost 10 years and Surviving R. Kelly has now actively made me question that desire.) Preying on underage girls is not just the work of one individual, but multiple yes men who permit it to happen. After all, it takes a village to raze a child.            

Executive Producers: Dream Hampton, Tamra Simmons, Jesse Daniels, Joel Karsberg, Maria Akl, Jessica Everleth

Premiered: Thursday, Jan. 3, on Lifetime