author – activist – faculty – mom
When I first heard about Dream Hampton’s documentary series “Surviving R Kelly” on Lifetime, I approached two other black women activists to view it with me. They both put me off. “I don’t know if I can watch that,” one of them told me. But I have been making media about Kelly for nearly two decades, in the ’00s in spoken word, and for the last decade, I have written many essays and graphic designs (left and below) about his abusive behavior. So I wanted to watch the documentary, and started commenting publicly earlier this week. As a working mom, I had such high hopes of watching the series as it aired. However, holiday childcare being what it was, I am just finishing watching it now. Here’s my review: “Surviving R Kelly” is a triumph, a phenomenal piece of art/journalism/activism.
First of all I am much less upset and triggered than I expected to be. But I my life’s work is thinking and talking and writing and organizing against rape culture and violence against women and misogyny and male domination. So when people say let’s talk about sexual violence, I don’t generally feel upset. Because I come from the perspective that sexual violence is happening all the time in silence and secrecy. So I usually feel relieved to talk openly about it, however horrible the stories are. Maybe this is also because I did a lot of healing of my own sexual trauma in my 20s, and spent lots of time in groups listening to other folks’ (mostly women’s) stories of abuse. But I understand that most people don’t live in this reality. And for many of us, the stories will be quite heavy and upsetting. And it can be hard to get enough time and support to work through the distraught feelings that a series like this can bring up.
Yet this intensely disturbing material was also less triggering because it was handled so deftly by Hampton, centering the stories of survivors and honoring them fully. In my experience over the decades, the biggest trauma of witnessing the outrageously criminal and abusive behavior of R Kelly has been how completely this behavior has been normalized, tolerated, and void of consequences. This incredible documentary offered a powerful antidote to that long history of enabling. It had a clear point of view that this behavior was criminal, brutal, and unacceptable, and it honored the women he had dishonored.
As journalism, it also differed from much of what has gone before. In the past, when the media did shine a light on the accusations against Kelly, it was often a lurid spotlight, designed to sell a sensational story to voyeuristic viewers. At other times, the traditional type of reporting had a level of detachment that made it painful to witness. I would read those hard journalism stories about Kelly and feel deeply distraught and alone with the hurt, despair, and outrage that surfaced in me. Also, it always felt like there were some voices that weren’t being heard, some context or perspective that was missing. This is not to criticize or invalidate any of the important previous journalistic work that had been done about R Kelly. It created a crucial foundation for this doc series, a more complete and nuanced longform story that had never been told in its entirety before.
What was also quite stunning and different about this documentary was that it was so thorough. She didn’t rush and jam it into two hours. She couldn’t. So the story moved at a pace that wasn’t overwhelming. It put together all the pieces of the different women’s stories, and the other community members who added perspectives and commentary.
I am not surprised that this concerted effort has resulted in sympathetic law enforcement officials deciding to take action. And as the legal cases roll forward, and the tour dates get cancelled, and the radio airplay dwindles, and the streaming outlets take him off the playlists, and the music industry stops paying his hush money bills, Robert Kelly will reap what he’s sowed—he’ll be an old, broke down man without the money and power to lure more young women into his orbit. And above all, he’ll be a sexual abuse survivor who never got the help he needed to keep from weaponizing his pain against the most vulnerable people he could find: young black women. I’m sorry he never got the help he deserved, but it’s too late for him to be any kind of primary victim in this story anymore. I’m not a fan of seeing any black person go to jail, but this pattern of abuse has gone on far too long for any other solution to be effective at this point. A community solution or a restorative justice solution or a non-carceral solution might have made sense decades ago. But whether or not he ever does time, I’ll just be glad to see him stripped of his empire.
This is war. The only way this man was able to get away with this level of abuse, decade after decade, was because he had an army of collaborators to enable him. Similarly, I found this documentary profoundly hopeful, because it represented a responding army of documentary filmmakers, producers, TV executives, survivors, parents, as well as employees and Kelly’s own family members-turned-whistleblowers. This documentary has been a rallying cry to coalesce the many forces that have been calling him out for decades. (Jamilah Lemieux, Mikki Kendall, Britni Danielle, Jamie Nesbitt Golden, Oronike Odeleye, Jessica Hopper, Jim DeRogatis, Tarana Burke, among many others).
Time’s Up, R Kelly. Time done been up.