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TV Review: ‘Surviving R. Kelly’

It’s been 25 years since R. Kelly first had to answer for sexual abuse allegations. Two and a half decades of new reports, new witnesses, new testimonies, new windows into an age-old story of powerful men seizing the chance to play God while trampling countless women — girls — into the dirt. And yet, as a devastating new docuseries lays out in damning detail, Kelly has nonetheless found a way to evade the charges and any real consequences almost every time.

In six hour-long chapters, Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” is perhaps the most comprehensive dive into the terrible, tangled history of allegations against the singer yet. The first two episodes dig into his childhood, in which he both was recognized as a musical prodigy and sexually abused himself and his unstoppable rise to stardom, and his relationship to Aaliyah, whom he met when she was just 12 years old. The third and fourth episodes detail the circumstances of the so-called “pee tape,” which allegedly showed Kelly having sex with and urinating on a 14 year-old girl, and the subsequent child pornography case that ended in a surprise acquittal. The final two episodes highlight the reports from the last several years that Kelly has isolated and groomed women and girls into a sex cult for his own pleasure.

All of these incidents have been exhaustively reported and dissected in public. Women have come forward with eyewitness accounts of gaslighting, intimidation, molestation, violence. There’s so much smoke surrounding Kelly at this point that he might as well be walking around fully engulfed in flames. This much, even to Kelly’s most stubborn defenders, has finally become obvious. And despite some recent explosive reports of Kelly’s allegedly ongoing sexual abuse, “Surviving R. Kelly” is arguably the most prominent strike against him yet.

But what makes this docuseries so crucial beyond its singularity is its dogged insistence on indicting not just Kelly, but everyone in the music industry and beyond who have allegedly enabled him. As one survivor puts it, “the reason why he could do it is because he had people helping him” — and as “Surviving R. Kelly” convincingly argues, he still does to this day. It’s a stark, horrifying reminder that merely saying “Time’s Up” for abuse doesn’t mean it is, and that fighting sexual violence means fighting a system explicitly built to minimize it whenever possible.

Aside from some dramatic musical stings and fades to black, the docuseries mostly eschews salacious framing in favor of measured, thorough documentation and extensive interviews with people from every stage of Kelly’s life. We hear from Kelly’s targets, bear witness to their startlingly similar accounts of abuse, watch them blink back tears as they try to make us understand why they’re speaking out. Driving home just how long this pattern has been playing out is the fact that while some of the survivors are young still, others now have daughters older than they were when they first met Kelly.

We also hear from the survivors’ friends, coaches, teachers, siblings. We hear from their parents, some of whom remain desperate to hear from their daughters for the first time in years. We even hear from Kelly’s own brothers, producers, and employees, watching them grapple in real time with their own culpability in protecting him over the years.

The testimonies are wrenching and furious, brimming over with pain, regret, and determination. And all of them, in one way or another, tell the same story of a brilliant and charismatic man taking every inch of power he got and using it to systematically exploit black women and girls, because he knew he could.

What’s more, “Surviving R. Kelly” also brings in journalists, culture writers, clinical psychologists, sexual violence experts, and even Kelly’s industry peers to help explain how he’s dodged 25 years of steadily piling evidence. Insight on how Kelly balanced two disparate sides of his musical personality — from the sex-obsessed player who dropped “Bump ‘n Grind” to the wholesome church ready anthem singer of “I Believe I Can Fly” — makes clear how he and the industry compartmentalized his professional prowess against the constant chaos of his personal life.

Context on how initial reports framed Kelly’s marriage to 15 year-old Aaliyah and alleged “sex tape” involving a 14 year-old (translation: tape of a sexual assault) reveals how unprepared, or unwilling, many were to call out abuse when faced with it. Clinical research, explained by experts with clear-cut patience, sheds light on how Kelly continues to attract women and girls into his orbit despite a quarter-century’s worth of meticulously documented horrors. In these ways, the docuseries seems to both anticipate the Kelly camp’s rebuttals and work to preemptively disprove them, shattering pushback with the blunt force of logic.

“Surviving R. Kelly” isn’t an easy watch; I dreaded pressing play. But once I started, it was impossible to look away — which is as it should be. It’s been too easy for too many to avert their eyes when the truth was staring back all along.

“Surviving R. Kelly” airs January 2, 3, and 4 on Lifetime at 9 pm EST.

TV Review: 'Surviving R. Kelly'

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