This weekend, I had the misfortune of watching Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B and am as dismayed and confused as the rest of you. The dialogue was satirical, her music was nonexistent, and the casting choices were so outlandish they inspired dozens of hilarious social media memes.
At this point, the public consensus seems to be that the whole thing was a train wreck.
But was it totally inaccurate?
Full disclosure, I may have been one of the biggest Aaliyah fans on the planet. We were about the same age, I had her posters hanging on my bedroom wall all through high school, and she was the first person in my generation to pass so tragically, teaching many of my peers and me a painful lesson about mortality.
So I get why fans were outraged at Wendy Williams and her production team for choosing to make this film without her family’s consent. And the fact that the final product stunk to high heaven only adds insult to injury.
But what if the movie hadn’t been a flop?
If the subject matter Williams and company attempted to highlight had been featured in a film that was actually good, what would we have to say then?
Whether you want to admit it or not, by most accounts, it’s been substantiated that Robert Kelly and Aaliyah Haughton did have an inappropriate relationship when she was 15 that led to an illegal (and short-lived) marriage. And even after they severed ties, Kelly still had years of legal battles to contend with, due to his affinity for under-aged girls.
But the music that they both made was amazing.
So how do we reconcile that? How do we responsibly address artists who are great at their craft but have dubious ethics in their personal lives?
A lot of people stopped listening to Chris Brown’s music when he got arrested for domestic violence in 2009. In 2012, legions of men who had lusted over Stacey Dash for decades, snatched her off their #WomanCrushWednesday lists after finding out about her political beliefs. And just this past week, many mourned the figurative “death” of fictional character Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, in light of Bill Cosby’s resurrected rape allegations.
Do we have a moral obligation to distance ourselves from public figures whose views and value systems don’t align with ours? Or is it better to just separate the work from the person and keep it moving?
We know Aaliyah had star power oozing out of her pores — but let’s be candid here: she also experienced some serious personal traumas.
While this weekend’s TV movie may have portrayed her relationship with R. Kelly as a pair of young, star-crossed lovers (easily the most irresponsible misstep in the film), in reality, she was a teenage girl that was taken advantage of by a sexual predator. The producers could have went somewhere deep and transformative with that storyline, pleasantly surprising us all. Instead, all we got was a couple random moments of her basically yelling “But daddy, I love him!” and sobbing into her pillow. That Disney-esque, almost sympathetic approach to statutory rape made me nauseous.
WATCH: ‘Aaliyah’ biopic star Alexandra Shipp: I’m being bullied for taking the role
There is some talk about Aaliyah’s family coming out with their own feature film biopic about the singer’s life in late 2015. From what I’ve heard so far, it appears to be more thoughtful than Lifetime’s offering, features all the music that her fans are looking for, and will undoubtedly be received more favorably.
But will it be honest?
Will her family really be willing to share the unsavory parts of her life that up ’til now have remained shrouded in mystery? That remains to be seen, but a part of me isn’t expecting the second Aaliyah movie to teach me any more than the first one did. Her family’s understandable desire to paint her in the best light will most likely leave many questions unanswered.
The one (and perhaps only) thing the Wendy Williams team had going for them was that they were willing to talk about everything. At least that’s what Williams claimed on her show in the weeks leading up to the premiere. It’s disappointing they lacked the talent or emotional intelligence to successfully pull it off.
The stan in me wishes someone would write an impartial, nuanced script about who Aaliyah Dana Haughton really was behind the bangs and sunglasses. Examine why she made the choices she did, acknowledge her insecurities (cause we all have them), and finally celebrate her as the talented, three dimensional, flawed but graceful young woman she grew into. We could probably learn a lot from that storyline while still preserving her legacy.
But would audiences be ok with that? Or has the need to remember her as our beloved “Baby girl” caused us to deify her to the point of becoming an urban folklore?
I honestly don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I will probably be binge listening to all her albums this week. The one honest thing we can always depend on is Aaliyah’s music. And for that I am thankful.