Few documentaries have had as tangible an impact in changing the narrative around accusations of sexual assault as “Surviving R. Kelly.” The Lifetime docu-series from journalist and executive producer dream hampton, nominated for an Emmy on Tuesday for informational series or special, made a comprehensive and emotionally searing case against the R&B singer’s alleged predations, with accusations going back decades and continuing into the present.
A new and potentially devastating round of federal indictments could put Kelly in prison for the rest of his life. We talked to hampton, 47, about the Emmy nomination and the rapidly developing case against Kelly.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. It must be extremely gratifying that your documentary helped motivate federal prosecutors into finally bringing charges against Kelly.
When making the documentary, I didn’t think [the case against Kelly] would be re-litigated. What I’d hoped for was what happened to Sea World after “Blackfish.” I wanted people to turn away from him — to stop playing his music at weddings and barbecues, or at least for people to go to the DJ and make them answer to that. I wanted the music industry to answer to that. I agreed with the “Mute R. Kelly” movement that boycott, divestment and sanctions were a very old school and nonviolent way to mete out consequences.
It feels like these prosecutions are an admission that state prosecutors got it wrong the first time, which has to be equally encouraging and enraging.
A few things happened in 2008. You had a judge not being fair. The prosecutors went really hard, but there was a combination of things. One, he had very savvy attorneys who delayed the trial for six years, so a 14-year-old would appear to be 20 . There’s a narrative that [Kelly’s] not literate and was abused, that he’s almost a child frozen in a moment. But it’s a man whose strategy was to wait until his [alleged] victim no longer appeared to be 14, and in so many sex and gender violence crimes, the victim is put on trial. And now we know that behind the scenes, Kelly [is accused of] paying off the family and keeping the [alleged] victim close to him. She thought she was in a loving relationship with someone who urinated in her mouth on video. You can do that with someone who is not fully formed. That’s why predators prey on young people.
Between the 2008 trials and now, there were more [alleged] victims. This is not a man who was willing to face his [alleged] crimes and face his sickness. He wasn’t interested in restorative justice — look at that performance with Gayle King. We’d be living in a different country if men said, “I did terrible things and I don’t want to be that man anymore, I want to not be an abusive person anymore.” Instead of gaslighting us, that would have gone a lot further than any conviction to healing in this country.
What has it meant for the survivors to see this documentary so embraced and believed by your peers and the public?
People are feeling lots of ways. They’re dealing with life and work, and all of them were so brave to talk to me. It wasn’t a sure thing that there was going to be this outcome. They were dragged and belittled on social media, they were stalked, and accounts from his supporters were dedicated to trolling us. We’ve experienced a range of things.
I had to produce a project that not only would have emotional responses, but where the transcripts could be subpoenaed and where I’d assume we could be sued. It wasn’t like “let’s be friends”; it was them facing the camera and me presenting questions that were vetted by attorneys. It was more of a deposition than hanging with Nicole Kidman for Vanity Fair, so I can’t tell you how they’re feeling. I hope they’re engaged in a system of support, and we’ve tried to point them in that direction.
This was a story about the victimization of young black women, directed and produced by black women and relying on black experts. It’s an embodiment of the current push to tell different, unheard stories in television and film. Has the success of the documentary proven how essential it is to tell these stories?
There’s great value if you have access to this medium, in letting people see this story rather than read it. I bemoan that fact, but that’s where we’re at. Putting these women in front of people who had been denying their reality, who had read that he was found not guilty, even when they knew he wasn’t innocent, went a long way.
Of course black girls’ stories are discounted at a higher level. But no survivors are getting justice. Look at the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearing. We’ll see with the [Jeffrey] Epstein girls.
We also wanted to populate the film with black experts. R. Kelly is a genre singer, and the people who sustained him have been black people. He was the only R&B singer in the all-hip-hop landscape who remained relevant. He was uniquely ours to deal with. [The Michael Jackson documentary] “Leaving Neverland” had just the victims and their parents, but I needed someone to explain why victims of domestic violence don’t leave. The person needed to be a professional and they needed to be black. I wanted industry experts like [music writer] Nelson George to explain [the R. Kelly] phenomenon to millennials. All that was important to me, to not just be six hours of women crying.
I disagree with people telling me that somehow Kelly being targeted has to do with race. If anything, it was love and currency from black people that avoided him facing consequences. Not just legal consequences, but being able to perform at BET Awards, to be honored at the Soul Train Awards. I’m not going to blame black people, but there’s been a way that we circled around him to protect him that sacrificed black girls.