Last year, Surviving R Kelly spotlighted multiple women who shared allegations of sexual violence and abuse committed by Kelly. The show sparked a heated public reaction to the singer as boycotts of his music began; his concerts were cancelled; and the hashtag #MuteRKelly gained steam. Since Surviving R Kelly first aired in January 2019, more than two dozen sex-crime charges have been filed against Kelly. The pressure culminated in a volatile interview between Kelly and Gayle King in March 2019, Kelly shouting in tears: “I didn’t do this stuff! I’m fighting for my fucking life! Y’all killing me with this shit!”
At first, the team behind the documentary was completely against doing a second season. What changed their minds? Seeing the harassment the profiled survivors faced after the documentary aired. (In one scene, Faith Rodgers, 21, recounts how friends of Kelly threatened to release nude photos and videos of her.) Another factor? Watching law enforcement officials continually fail to protect survivors of Kelly’s sexual violence and pursue the justice they deserve.
Here, the executive producers Miranda Bryant and Jesse Daniels talk to the Guardian about exploring who is responsible for protecting Kelly’s survivors, inserting women of color into the #MeToo movement, and the slim possibility of a third season.
The first season of Surviving R Kelly worked diligently to make audiences care about Kelly’s survivors and issue a call to action. What was the motivating force for this season?
Miranda Bryant: All of us were adamantly against doing a second season. We worried that if we didn’t do it right, we would reverse the support that the first [season] helped garner for our survivors. But during our research, there was a conversation a reporter had with authorities, who obtained clear evidence of things that are sort of similar to the Chicago trial evidence [In 2008, Kelly was tried and acquitted by a Chicago court on charges related to child abuse images.] Essentially, the charges were dropped and the reporter wanted to know why and the answer that they got was, “Well, they’re not our girls.” What does that mean, exactly? That’s when we started having conversations about the possibility of a part two.
Jesse Daniels: “Those are not our girls” became a mission statement for us. We asked ourselves, “OK, well, whose responsibility are they? And whose responsibility is it to tell these stories?” We also started getting more messages from people who had worked for R Kelly and new survivors started coming forward. There was a rollout of charges against R Kelly and news outlets continued to report the story. We felt we were done, and then all of this started happening and we felt a new sense of responsibility to continue the story.
What was it like to watch R Kelly’s public reactions to the boycotts and court cases? I’m thinking especially about his interview with Gayle King. Did it play a role in filming this second season?
Bryant: No, I don’t think [Kelly’s reactions] went into the need to follow up. We have just been watching everything unfold. I think after the documentary aired, the concentration for us was really on the survivors and the support that they were getting. And also some of the conflicts they were experiencing.
It was interesting to see how Surviving R Kelly particularly resonated with the black community. Were you conscious of the conversations and reactions occurring within black spaces around R Kelly and sexual violence?
Bryant: The #MeToo movement hit and then the #TimesUp movement came around, and I think without the hard work of laying those things down, we wouldn’t have been where we were with Surviving R Kelly. I don’t think anyone would have been ready to hear from the survivors. For Lifetime, it’s important for them to be a platform for all women. In particular, as those two movements have been emerging on a broader level, it only looked like one thing. What was nice about Surviving R Kelly is that it gave a more inclusive perspective on what’s been happening in the world of sexual of violence with women. It was nice to fill in the gap.
Do you think the documentary worked to lessen the victim-blaming these women face in any way?
Daniels: If you were blaming a survivor, we wanted to peel that back and explain why you shouldn’t blame any survivor. If it was the parents, we wanted to present their perspective. A lot of people pointed to the music industry, so we wanted to pull the curtain back on that.
What are the unique difficulties of creating a documentary about sexual violence, even post #MeToo?
Daniels: What I think we did successfully in both seasons is throughout each story, we took a step back and had professionals break down what our survivors were going through. They really helped people who are watching the documentary understand the repercussions of sexual violence. If there was anybody who had experienced sexual violence watching the documentary, I think it helped a lot of people.
What do you hope viewers take from this second season?
Bryant: With part one, the stories had been out there for almost 30 years. So it was not like the world hadn’t heard them before. It was [presented in] a different medium than the journalistic reporting people like Jim DeRogatis had been doing for years. Part one for us was really about hiding in plain sight and taking a look at the past 30 years and the lyrics and the performances and all the things that we already knew and sort of unpacking it. Part two takes a look at the responsibility of the culture to our women.
Surviving R Kelly Part II: The Reckoning is available on Lifetime