Eye-opening R. Kelly documentary on Lifetime an ‘uneasy’ must-watch
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Time’s Up for R. Kelly.
That’s the takeaway from the eye-opening, six-part documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly,” which airs over three nights on Lifetime starting Thursday.
For the first time since allegations about the singer’s predatory behavior toward underage girls came to light in the early 2000s, this comprehensive series presents a united front of women who speak out about the singer’s alleged physical, mental and sexual abuse. Members of Kelly’s inner circle break their silence in a big way, too.
It’s uneasy to watch, not just because of what they all say, but because of the amount of time it took for them to say it.
In all, more than 50 people are interviewed, including #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, musicians John Legend and Sparkle, talk-show host Wendy Williams, and radio legend Tom Joyner. Two Sun-Times journalists, Kathy Chaney and Mary Mitchell, are included in the series, along with Abdon Pallasch, a former Sun-Times reporter.
‘Surviving R. Kelly’
8 p.m. Jan. 3-5, Lifetime
“I want my story to be heard so people can take the situation seriously,” says Lisa Van Allen, one of Kelly’s former love interests, who first hooked up with him when she was 17.
The series does just that, presenting credible, firsthand accounts of years of alleged abuse against young girls and women by Kelly, a Chicago native. According to several subjects, the singer and his entourage purposefully scoped out Kenwood Academy High School girls at a Hyde Park McDonald’s.
The story culminates at Kelly’s mansions in Atlanta and south suburban Olympia Fields — and even his Chicago recording studio — where families of several alleged victims claim Kelly has been holding women and girls “hostage” in manipulative sex cults.
Many of the girls share the same profile: hopeful singers and dancers to whom Kelly promises stardom.
The revelations disclosed by the women in “Surviving R. Kelly” are intense, including lurid details of an infamous videotape that appears to show Kelly having sex with an alleged minor. Kelly was arrested and indicted on 21 counts of child pornography after then-Sun-Times reporters Pallasch and Jim DeRogatis produced an investigative report about the tape. A jury ultimately found Kelly not guilty after neither the alleged victim nor her parents would come forward to personally accuse him.
Jovante Cunningham, a former backup singer for Kelly, alleges she saw Kelly having sex with another underage girl on the singer’s tour bus. Then there’s Kelly’s ex-wife Andrea, who tearfully describes being held prisoner in their home, where she says Kelly physically and mentally abused her.
That pattern of behavior continues with women who say they have been held captive by Kelly at his various homes, are forced to call the singer “daddy” and must ask him permission to eat, use the bathroom or leave their bedrooms. One girl, the “outspoken” and “tomboyish” Dominique Gardner, was made to shave her head and dress like a boy, says a former Kelly employee.
“There is a difference between R. Kelly and Robert; R. Kelly is this fun, laughing, loving guy. But Robert is the devil,” says Asante McGee as she walks the documentary’s producers through one of Kelly’s former Atlanta homes where she once lived with him and a veritable harem of young women. As horrific memories come flooding back, McGee refuses to enter her old bedroom.
By the end of the series, as the producers follow families desperate to loosen their daughters from Kelly’s grip, it’s impossible to come to terms with the fact that this is not an overly dramatized saga you’d normally find on Lifetime, but the very real story of a person the subjects say is a “predator.”
The series also dives into how all of it was able to happen as Kelly’s career skyrocketed. Experts chalk it up to a music-celebrity culture at the time that would forgive anything of its superstars.
The list of people interviewed includes ex-tour manager and personal assistant Demetrius Smith — who admits to forging documents for Kelly’s marriage license to teen sensation Aaliyah Haughton — as well as Kelly’s brothers, Carey and Bruce.
The series begins with Robert Sylvester Kelly’s story, painting a portrait of his rough childhood in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on Chicago’s far South Side. It claims Kelly had reading problems and was himself molested as a boy by a family member — though producers give him no free pass for that.
“There was an eco-system of protection” surrounding Kelly, journalist Jamilah Lemieux says in the documentary, which also chronicles the groundswell of activists who have led organizers to cancel some of his concerts (including at the UIC Pavilion last year) and remove him from Spotify, among other public rebukes.
Producers attempted to make contact with Kelly and his team, but they say they never got any replies.
The singer denies all claims against him and, according to a statement provided to Lifetime, calls the most recent string of allegations “a greedy, conscious and malicious conspiracy to demean him, his family, and the women with whom he spends his time.”
THE ‘SURVIVING R. KELLY’ LINEUP
The producers of “Surviving R. Kelly” interviewed more than 50 people for the documentary series. Here’s the list:
• John Legend, R&B star
• Wendy Williams, talk show host
• Kathy Chaney, Chicago Sun-Times journalist
• Carey Kelly, younger brother
• Bruce Kelly, older brother
• Craig Williams, music producer at Chicago Trax
• Marc Williams, high school friend and member of MGM
• Jamilah Lemieux, journalist and cultural critic
• Lena McLin, music teacher at Kenwood Academy
• Jovante Cunningham, survivor, backup vocalist
• Sgt. Jacques Conway, retired Oak Park police sergeant
• Mikki Kendall, co-creator of HoodFeminism
• Jamie Nesbitt Golden, co-creator of HoodFeminism
• Demetrius Smith, former tour manager and personal assistant
• Ann Powers, music journalist
• Lizette Martinez
• Oronike Odeleye, founder of #MuteRKelly
• Andrea Kelly, ex-wife, dancer
• Dr. Khadijah Monk, professor of criminology
• Sparkle, recording artist, backup vocalist
• Abdon Pallasch, former Sun-Times journalist
• Kim Janssen, former Sun-Times journalist
• Lisa Van Allen
• Touré, journalist
• Gem Pratts, childhood friend and former security guard
• Dr. Candice Norcott, clinical psychologist
• Mary Mitchell, Sun-Times columnist
• Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo movement
• Raven Gingler, childhood friend of alleged victim on sex tape
• Tracii McGregor, media and music executive
• Richard Devine, former Cook County state’s attorney
• Nelson George, music journalist
• Leslie “Big Lez” Segar, journalist and BET personality
• Dr. Jody Adewale, clinical psychologist
• Miss Info, hip-hop journalist
• Jerhonda Pace
• Michelle Kramer, mother of Dominique Gardner
• Tim & JonJelyn Savage, parents of Joycelyn Savage
• Tom Joyner, radio personality
• Kitti Jones
• Alice & Angelo Clary, parents of Azriel Clary
• Asante McGee
• Faith Rodgers