'Surviving R. Kelly' Review: Bill Cosby-Level Disgrace for the R&B Star Should Follow

'Surviving R. Kelly' Review: Bill Cosby-Level Disgrace for the R&B Star Should Follow

As discussion around sexual assault becomes more nuanced, people who were once termed “victims” are now “survivors.” The Lifetime documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” bluntly centers on that perspective shift, but with more nuance than you might expect from the cable network.

A six-part series documenting decades of allegations against the R&B star, “Surviving R. Kelly” is a horror story. Here, the monster isn’t just the titular man, but the people and systems around him that allegedly continue to enable his abuse of underage girls.

Executive producer dream hampton brings together an astonishing number of interview subjects to tell this story — not just survivors and their family members, but abuse experts as well as former members of Kelly’s inner circle, including his brothers, his ex-wife, and the former associate who says he personally falsified the papers that infamously let Kelly marry late singer Aaliyah at the age of 15.

hampton keeps things simple, to the point of starkness, but that matter-of-fact approach makes “Surviving R. Kelly” all the more heartbreaking. The series relies largely on talking-head interviews, with many participants shot against a plain black background. It’s not the most innovative format, but it ensures we never lose focus on what’s being said.

The major visual choice is on-screen text, which provides context in lieu of voiceover, especially when it comes to establishing how old (or, young) the girls were that Kelly allegedly abused. None were over the age of 19; some were as young as 12.

Much of what “Surviving R. Kelly” covers isn’t technically news. It draws on decades of published reports about Kelly’s behavior, from the infamous “pee tape” trial to more recent coverage about the “cult” Kelly fostered in his homes.

However, video does a better job of capturing the tearful confessions of those caught in Kelly’s web to the details revealed in archival footage. In a TV interview prior to their marriage becoming known, we see underage Aaliyah wearing a Mickey Mouse baseball cap and button-down shirt; Kelly is in a matching shirt. Meanwhile, the two coyly said they were just “best friends.”

The phrase “telling on yourself” comes up a fair amount in these episodes, as psychologists and music experts dig into the ways in which Kelly’s own music let him manipulate the culture. Making his “wild sexual life” (as the pee tape was characterized at the time) a centerpiece of the campy epic “Tales From the Closet” is just one example of Kelly diffusing the bomb that was his bad behavior.

The series captures how easy it was to write off borderline creepiness in the pre-#MeToo era; even full-on accusations had a hard time gaining traction. It also addresses why R. Kelly has been a turbulent issue within the black community. (Salon’s Melanie McFarlane notes that black women are “magnificently” centered in the narrative.)

Andrea Kelly Surviving R. Kelly


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