A+E Networks-owned women’s network Lifetime concluded its run of the original docuseries Surviving R. Kelly on Saturday (Jan. 5), delivering standout ratings and social media impressions.
Surviving R. Kelly explores decades of allegations of abuse by musician R. Kelly, including holding women against their will in a “sex cult.”
Several Kelly accusers speak publicly for the first time in the series, joined by numerous members of Kelly’s inner circle. Interviewees include civil rights activist Tarana Burke, musicians John Legend and Sparkle, talk-show host and former DJ Wendy Williams, ex-wife Andrea Kelly, ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones, brothers Carey and Bruce Kelly, and others.
In the lead-up to the premiere, a preview screening event was disrupted by gun threats made over the phone, and Kelly’s lawyer threatened a lawsuit should the premiere air as planned. The premiere went ahead on Jan. 3 as scheduled. Kelly’s lawyer has since denied the allegations put forward in the program.
Surviving R. Kelly ranked as cable television’s number one non-fiction series in key demos for the week it aired, and as Lifetime’s strongest non-fiction series in seven years, with 18.8 million viewers across all linear telecasts. An encore presentation of all six hours will air on Jan. 11 at 6 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
Filmmaker and cultural critic Dream Hampton serves as executive producer on Surviving R. Kelly. Brie Miranda Bryant serves as executive producer for Lifetime. Joel Karsberg, Jesse Daniels and Tamra Simmons serve as EPs for Kreativ Inc. and are backed exclusively by Bunim/Murray Productions.
Realscreen spoke with Miranda Bryant, Daniels and Simmons about the docuseries and its impact.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Surviving R. Kelly come into being?
Jesse Daniels: Around July, 2017, Tamra and I started noticing some articles where victims were telling their stories for the first time, new victims, about R. Kelly. And this is right before the #MeToo movement hit. Those articles went viral, but then we noticed they died out pretty quickly after that. We thought first after reading them, there must be more to this story, and that in this powerful #MeToo era, why hasn’t anything been done about it? And so we just started digging, with Joel Karsberg as well, we got in contact with one victim, who introduced us to another, who introduced us to someone else associated with [R. Kelly's] camp, and we created this web.
Brie, what did that look like from the network’s perspective?
Brie Miranda Bryant: We were on the heels of the #MeToo movement, and internally, for us, we always try and challenge ourselves to say something after the hour is done. A lot of these women have been screaming into the wind, and no one heard them. I really wanted to take it back to do a timeline documentary. How many people can you get to talk about the same story? I really am a believer that there’s power in numbers.
What were some of the challenges of producing a series with this many voices, with this type of subject matter?
Tamra Simmons: I’m just thankful that we’re shedding light on so much in the communities that before people really didn’t want to talk about. We just had to keep on encouraging [survivors] that they were doing a good thing, not only for themselves, to heal, but for other women and men that have been sexually abused. I’m just thankful that we’re receiving so much support. I couldn’t even imagine as much support as we’ve had and they’ve had. And I’m thankful for them that they trusted us enough to be able to tell their story the right way.
Obviously no one expected R. Kelly to be a fan, but did you go in expecting the legal threats that you’ve received?
Jesse Daniels: No one thought he was going to support this. I guess you have to be ready for anything in this kind of situation, and all that we can say on our end is that we just wanted to do the best job we could to cover all of our bases. To check every statement we put out there. You can’t exactly predict what’s going to happen on the other end, but all we could do on our end is just be prepared, and make the best production we could.
There’s a larger movement to expose this kind of abuse — you mentioned the #MeToo movement. What kind of impact do you think that a project like Surviving R. Kelly is having at the moment?
Brie Miranda Bryant: On the night of the finale, Saturday, I get a text that Tamra’s heading to a huge watch party that there were actual flyers for down in Atlanta, at the same time that I was standing in a huge loft in Brooklyn that I thought was going to be a small watch party but was a minimum of 50 women and men who made it more of a conversation. I think that what’s great is that it’s transcended the doc and the doc feels like a catalyst for a bigger conversation that America needs to have.
How do you see this project fitting with the Lifetime brand?
Brie Miranda Bryant: Lifetime has always been a platform for women. Period. One of the tenets of Lifetime has always been an advocacy arm. Part of what we’re looking for, from a development standpoint, is more content that fits into our ‘Justice For Women’ brand for unscripted. It’s something that our movie team does already with movies like Flint and Elizabeth Smart, so we are continuing to do what we always have been. Something like this helps us. It gives us momentum to do more.
Are there any specific moments in the series that resonate for you in particular?
Tamra Simmons: Michelle searching for her daughter and finding her; even though I was there, I went back and watched it, and when I watched it I broke down. That was so surreal to me, because I’m a mother also. I have a 17-year-old, and I can just imagine if that was my daughter, and I wasn’t able to free her for a number of years. Michelle held it together, and I just commend her for that.
Brie Miranda Bryant: For me, it was every time one of them defined themselves as a “survivor,” it kind of flipped the script, because you always hear “victim.” It just seemed like a self-realization for all of them as they said it. I thought there was such empowerment in that. Sex abuse hotlines spiked during and immensely after the first episode. So those moments, I think are key, because those moments are moments of impact.
Tamra Simmons: Of course the cameras can’t continue to roll, but the families are still trying to get their daughters back, so it doesn’t just stop at the documentary. The fight still continues afterwards.