In the third and final installment of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly documentary, things go slightly off the rails. Airing Saturday night, the two-hour segment focused on the contemporary manifestations of R. Kelly’s negative media coverage, the allegations that he has been imprisoning women in a “sex cult”, and the families of the young women therein.
While the first four hours of the series took a historical look at the factors that enabled R. Kelly to operate unencumbered in plain sight within the music industry, this installment takes a decidedly more gonzo approach, following mother Michelle Kramer as she attempts to extract her daughter Dominique Gardner from R. Kelly’s clutches. The aesthetics of the scene read like a “gotcha” style reality television show; we are shown cell phone camera footage of Kramer’s tear streamed face as she pleads with her daughter to escape with her.
Where before the documentary felt informative and necessary, here it feels exploitative. Largely dispensing with the “talking heads” format, we also follow survivor Asante McGee as she returns to the house she lived in with Kelly while under his control. McGee roams the now empty mansion visibly shaken; she refuses to enter the room she once slept in. It was at this point the endeavor began to feel voyeuristic and salacious. It was no longer apparent that the survivors’ well being was being prioritized in the retelling of their traumas.
But by far the most difficult thing to grapple with are the parents featured in the film. Alice and Angelo Clary, who have not heard from their daughter Azriel in over two years detail their initial encounters with R. Kelly and their attempts to mitigate her contact with him. But as critic Angelic Jade Bastién points out in her critical review of the series, the producers never quite manage to ask the necessary questions. The Clarys admit that they had heard the rumors about R. Kelly’s conduct but determined that because he had not been convicted, and they wanted to support their daughter’s talents, they would allow her contact with the declining star, but only under constant supervision. Their pain at losing contact with their daughter is obvious and stark, but more questions about precisely how they came to greenlight their daughter’s initial contact with R. Kelly would help viewers understand how even girls with involved parents get ensnared in these abusive situations.
Survivors Kitti Jones and Faith Rodgers’ entanglement with R. Kelly is yet another facet of this story. That their relationships with him began well after the allegations against him had resurfaced, shows that even fully grown Black women can fall prey to the toxic thinking that makes us so uniquely vulnerable to abuse. In this way, the cultural narrative that over-sexualizes Black women and blames them for their victimization created a feedback loop that allowed Kelly to ensnare more vulnerable women.
The documentary’s most bizarre choice however is to feature the testimony of known abusers as counter voices to R. Kelly. Rapper and podcaster Joe Budden was accused of causing his ex-girlfriend to miscarry due to his abuse and radio personality Charlamagne Tha God has admitted to having sex with a nearly unconscious woman and has made questionable statements about his first sexual encounter with his wife.
While Hampton has since addressed the choice to include Charlamagne, many see it as a slap in the face to the very women the documentary is meant to center. To allow men known to be abusers of Black woman the space to pontificate about R. Kelly’s reprehensible actions threatens to undermine the entire project. Black men who skate responsibility for the abuse should also be held accountable.
If there’s one thing these six hours have taught us, it’s that culturally we have failed Black women and girls. Our existence and wellbeing are seen as commodities that can be traded or dispensed with in service of the valorization of Black men. R. Kelly’s story is unique in that he is a celebrity, but Black women and their bodies have been the site of deadly family secrets for decades. The loving instinct to protect Black men from white law enforcement neglects Black women and sacrifices their right to live free from trauma, allowing serial abusers to operate in the open and destroying the bright young lives of the women in their wake.
Cate Young is a freelance writer based in Trinidad and Tobago and the creator of BattyMamzelle; a feminist pop culture blog focused on film, television, music and critical commentary on media representation. Come back each day for her comments on “Surviving R. Kelly.”