When “Surviving R. Kelly” debuted last January on Lifetime, the six-part documentary series re-ignited the conversation around #MeToo, galvanizing the black community by exposing one its most popular artists as an alleged sexual predator. Just weeks later, “Leaving Neverland” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival amid protests from supporters of Michael Jackson, whose adult victims provided painstaking firsthand accounts of the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the late performer. While many were horrified by the accounts in both docu-series, others were angered by what they viewed as a targeted campaign against black men. “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning,” airing over three nights this January, explores the surprising aftermath of the series, which included threats and online attacks aimed at many of the survivors who spoke out.
“The backlash we have seen as a result of not just R. Kelly but #MeToo in general, in particular around the intersection of race and sexual violence is scary. I don’t even have other words, it’s really scary to me,” said #MeToo founder Tarana Burke during a discussion following a New York preview of “Part II: The Reckoning.” “We won’t have a culture shift until we really address some of those things.”
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The two episodes that screened tracked the legal battles Kelly faced in the last year while elaborating on Kelly’s childhood history as a victim of sexual abuse. This summer, Kelly plead not guilty to a number of federal charges related to obstruction of justice, child pornography, and sex trafficking of women and girls. He was denied bail and remains in jail pending a trial in 2020.
“Part II: The Reckoning” also features commentary from journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has been reporting Kelly’s alleged abuses for nearly two decades, and introduces a newly-revealed victim, Lanita Carter, a former employee who alleged an assault by Kelly in 2003. In tearful interviews, Carter explains how she was inspired to break her NDA after seeing the original series. Another survivor, Jerhonda Pace, details the many ways — emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual — that Kelly’s alleged abuse still haunts her to this day.
“The reason folks can’t understand what #MeToo is about is that they don’t understand the life cycle of a survivor, what it means and what it feels like to survive sexual violence,” said Burke. “In particular, we don’t see it in black girls, and listening to the sister talk about how it affected her…we don’t get to see that around most survivors — and we definitely don’t get to see it about black girls.”
Another subject from the original series, Faith Rodgers, appears in order to detail the harassment she has faced since suing Kelly for infecting her with a sexually transmitted disease. In retaliation for the lawsuit and for appearing in “Surviving R. Kelly,” Rodgers has become the target of Kelly supporters, who post negative messages and photos of her under specific hashtags. Rodgers alleges Kelly — or someone working for him — leaked nude pictures of her online. Her parents, who also appear in the series, had to move residences and install security cameras outside their home.
“Surviving R. Kelly” executive producer dream hampton, who also appeared at Tuesday’s event, noted the long history of backlash to women who speak out about abuse in the black community. She mentioned the vitriol Alice Walker received following “The Color Purple,” saying “she basically gets canceled before there was an internet,” and also singled out playwright Ntozake Shange (“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf”) as someone who was “not only discounted, but really harmed in terms of what happens to her life after that.”
“So this is a longstanding thing, and in some ways I was bracing for it,” said hampton. “What I don’t understand is how someone who was so egregious, and was such an open secret for so long — Bill Cosby was actually shocking to people, maybe not to people in the industry, but to the general public Bill Cosby was a surprise — R. Kelly was not a surprise. There was a video tape of him, if you didn’t see the video tape then you knew that Dave Chappelle did a send-up, ‘South Park’ did a send-up, ‘The Boondocks’ — it was part of a cultural joke. It was an open secret who he was, so for brothers to say — ‘This is the hill I’m gonna die on’? I found that interesting.”
The topic is clearly fraught for the producers of “Surviving R. Kelly,” who also have received pushback from the community. In the lead-up to the Kelly documentary, Kelly’s supporters began the hashtag #FirstThem, seemingly implying that the media should focus on white abusers before any black men face justice. The issue goes beyond Kelly: Music mogul Russell Simmons recently denounced Oprah Winfrey for featuring one of his accusers in her forthcoming Apple TV+ series, a #MeToo documentary that will premiere at Sundance this January. Shortly after Simmons’ comment, rapper 50 Cent accused Winfrey of “going after black men.”
“We have to acknowledge the long, horrible history of black men being falsely accused of sexual violence in this country,” said Burke. “It’s a true fact, we know it. The part you can’t get folks go past is that if we can acknowledge that history, then we also have to acknowledge the long and horrible history of sexual violence against black women in this country. Both at the hands of white people and at the hands of black men. That’s not an indictment against black men.”
“Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning” premieres on Lifetime on January 3, 2019.
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