The Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly has sparked a surge of events. Its many powerful interviews, says a network exec, made “it harder to look away.”
Everybody knew — they just didn't want to.
The ugly story of R. Kelly's alleged predatory sexual behavior with underage girls had been out there for years, diligently reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, MTV News, Vibe, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed and others. But it never really registered with the millions who kept buying Kelly's albums and crowding into his concerts.
There were a few protests, and a campaign called #MuteRKelly had gained momentum in recent years. But the man himself — in his diamond earrings and furs — kept right on touring the world and selling records in the millions. He was a Teflon star.
That finally changed with the arrival of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part documentary series on Lifetime that scored a direct hit on Kelly's life and career this past January; a follow-up special, Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact, aired May 4.
The singer is now caught up in a storm of public fury, bombarded by charges from multiple women of criminal sexual conduct — from statutory rape to physical abuse. Kelly denies all allegations.
So what changed? According to showrunner dream hampton (whose lowercase name is a tribute to activist bell hooks), we now have a "missing piece": the sight of several of Kelly's alleged victims telling their stories directly to the camera.
Unlike the singer's 2008 criminal trial on child-pornography charges, in which the girl at the center of the case never took the witness stand, here, at last, there was testimony.
No one was sworn in or cross-examined (or had her integrity attacked by a defense lawyer), but these women got to tell their stories, and we finally heard them. Brie Miranda Bryant, Lifetime's senior vice-president of original programming, says, "We're in a moment now where this [sort of thing] is easier for people to digest."
It wasn't easy persuading so many women to come forward, but Bunim/Murray Productions, which originated the project, started with the parents.
Executive producer Tamra Simmons reached out to Jonjelyn and Timothy Savage, who were trying to reconnect with their daughter, Joycelyn, whom they believed had joined Kelly's alleged "sex cult." Simmons gained the Savages' trust, and they in turn connected her with more sources.
Simmons found others via social media. "I didn't come at it like a producer or a reporter," she says. "I was like a friend. A lot of it was just me encouraging them — 'You're stronger than him.'"
Verification was essential, she explains. "I would ask several times to make sure [their stories] matched up: 'Did you have a witness?' 'Did you have permission to record that audio?'"
"We had to assume that R. Kelly was going to sue us," Hampton adds. "We had to make sure this documentary could survive any lawsuit."
Once the first few interviews had been lined up, Bunim/Murray went shopping for a showrunner and a network. "When we started the conversation at Lifetime, it was three survivors and two sets of parents," Bryant says. "We came to realize there was great power in numbers. When you go from three people to 54 people talking about something, it's harder to look away."
And so the tale grew in the telling — from one hour, to two hours, to six hours of television. Bryant pushed for a linear timeline that would incorporate people from Kelly's family and childhood. Showrunner hampton, who was recruited for her knowledge of the music industry, was resistant to standard biopic exposition (no R. Kelly: Behind the Music treatment).
She fought to bring in other observers: critics and music historians to unpack issues of race, gender and the cultural ecosystem in which Kelly operated, as well as psychologists to discuss sexual abuse and domestic violence. She also conferred off-camera with a dominatrix about submissives in the BDSM subculture, and with a pimp about the grooming of young girls.
"Part of it was defensive," hampton says. "Because I knew R. Kelly would advance a story like, 'I'm sex-positive, and so are all the consenting people who are of legal age around me.'" Bryant was also struck by Kelly's episodic soap "hip-hopera," Trapped in the Closet, which he released in segments from 2005 to 2013.
"Trapped was really life imitating art," she says. "He brilliantly crafted a series of multiple reveals, and as we started to put together the timeline, that's what we did, too: reveal, reveal, reveal." The producers were surprised by some reveals they hadn't scripted, like vérité footage of rescue attempts (which nicely offset the show's parade of talking heads).
One of the interviewees, Michelle Kramer, was hoping to reconnect with her daughter, Dominique Gardner. No sooner had she arrived in L.A. to shoot her part of the documentary than TMZ aired an interview with Joycelyn Savage, who was in town — and had Dominique Gardner by her side.
"Michelle was like, 'Thanks for the ticket, but I'm going to go get my daughter,'" Bryant says. Simmons shot the reunion on her iPhone, barely catching the moment as the pair ran out of a hotel together.
They're not the only ones running away from R. Kelly. Since the documentary aired, a number of Kelly's creative collaborators, like Lady Gaga, have denounced him. His record label, RCA, dropped him, and Spotify and Apple Music have removed his music from their streaming services.
The singer has been charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse in Chicago, and other investigations are continuing.
Bryant believes justice may be in the offing. "From the beginning," she says, "it's been about giving these women a platform after they've been screaming into the wind for so long."
More than that, the documentary has empowered other victims to come forward. Bryant says she was in a hair salon when she overheard a group of men and women discussing her show.
"What I will never forget," she says, "is one guy saying, 'I'm a survivor, too.' To hear that from a black man, and to see people respond without judgment, made me think, 'Whoa. This is bigger than the doc.' This documentary being a catalyst for a larger conversation around sexual violence is more than any of us could have asked for."
Surviving R. Kelly and Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact are available on mylifetime.com.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2019