[Content warning: This article is about difficult material, and contains mild spoilers from the first two episodes.]
As the producer of a true-crime-review podcast, I engage with a lot of material that's tough to get through. Sometimes it's difficult to endure merely because it isn't well made: goofy re-enactments, treacly voice-overs, pan-and-scans of the same three family photos. Other times, it's the material, and it's the nature of the genre that I don't contemplate all that many clever art heists where nobody gets hurt and the Rembrandt is returned unharmed. It's murders and sexual assaults; it's wrongful convictions proceeding from institutional bias and ineptitude. Worse, it's the cover-ups of those things, the refusal to believe victims, the benefit of the doubt refused to people of color and settled instead upon people (usually white men) in power. Coverage of the most egregious cases -- the In The Dark podcast; When They See Us's unflinching look at the Central Park Five -- can make audiences feel depressed, nauseated, and angry.
But that's the point: for us to bear witness. As horrifying as it is to hear survivors testifying to what they endured in both iterations of Surviving R. Kelly (and it is horrifying; the accounts of sexual "encounters" involve minor children and don't stint on detail, so if you feel you might be triggered, you should avoid the series), it is also important for those watching to see the human costs of Kelly's crimes. ..."Alleged crimes," I suppose I'm obliged to say; chyrons before and after each segment, which Kelly's legal team no doubt insisted on, note that Kelly denies wrongdoing, and go on to sneer that the participants don't "act like victims," as many of them have used their stories for career or monetary gain. This, to me, is the foremost reason The Reckoning is necessary. It's not just to catch viewers up with everything that went down after the first set of episodes aired a year ago, like the shooting threat phoned into the premiere, not to mention the raft of charges finally brought against Kelly after years of rumor and innuendo (and the 2008 child-pornography charges, a better-than-nothing case that couldn't be made to stick). It's to remind us what happens when women bring accusations against a famous and powerful man.
In just the first two episodes, which air tonight (I've seen screeners), survivors recount receiving death threats on social media; getting doxxed by fan sites; and, in the case of Faith Rodgers, a scary goose chase involving nude photos that a Kelly employee threatened to release if she and her family didn't back down. The Chicago Sun-Times's Jim DeRogatis, who has worked this story for decades, had a window shot out, and got threatening calls about his kids. A lot of the harassment comes from Kelly's "camp," and The Reckoning includes talking-head interviews with a pair of sisters who work(ed) for Kelly and who snottily hand-wave the charges as nonsense -- a grim illustration of a point made by various other commentators, that for those employed by a man like Kelly, it's financially perilous to face the truth about your boss's criminal predilections. The Reckoning exists in part to keep asking how a predator like R. Kelly "happens," and is allowed to keep happening… and that gravy train is one reason.
Another reason is our own profound unease with talented men who are also monsters, and for every salvo in Kelly's defense that came from "inside the building," there's one on Twitter, or Facebook, fans with no fiscal axes to grind rallying to Kelly's defense and dismissing survivors' claims as attention-seeking or blackmail or jealousy. The Reckoning takes care to explain, via interviews with a range of clinical experts, why it can take so long for public opinion to turn, and how predators learn to take advantage of their seemingly unassailable positions -- and our discomfort and reluctance to accuse them -- to continue victimizing women and/or children. The Reckoning seems to include these analyses for two reasons: to unpack for its critics, in small words, their own denial about Kelly's actions; and to explain to those of us who do believe Surviving R. Kelly's on-camera participants why so many people don't, or won't.
And many people also won't believe R. Kelly's accusers because they're women of color -- or because he's a person of color whom his supporters choose to believe is getting railroaded based on his race -- and this too is crucial to The Reckoning. The "justice" "system" works differently for non-white citizens, complainants and defendants both, and while the first chapter of Surviving R. Kelly made that point abundantly clear, it's a point that can't be made too many times. That it's made again here, in part, by one of Kelly's brothers, confessing to destroying evidence, only underlines it.
The assaults themselves aren't the only things outlasted in Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning. Survivors also have had to endure the secondary crimes and misdemeanors that follow, the harassment, the slander, the attempts to obstruct justice. These subsequent offenses silence victims, consolidate predators' control, and gaslight the entire culture into averting its collective gaze from the accusations -- a lesson we're still having to learn over and over again, from Survivor, from Ronan Farrow's work, and from The Reckoning. It's not five episodes of TV anyone "wants" -- but it's five episodes we need.
The first two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly: The Reckoning air tonight at 9:00 PM ET on Lifetime. Parts 3-6 air on Friday and Saturday night.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. She's also the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tomato Nation, and true-crime blog and podcast The Blotter Presents.