R&B singer R. Kelly has been released from jail in Chicago, three days after being booked on charges alleging that he sexually abused four women, including three who were minors at the time. (Feb. 25)
The biggest weapon in the fight against abuse appears to be the televised documentary.
Since the first stories about disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein were published in the fall of 2017, #MeToo has morphed from a movement to a hashtag to a defining theme of our era.
But when it comes to starting real conversations and (much harder) changing the public’s assumptions, documentaries have the potential to change minds in more transformative ways.
Three recent true-crime docuseries about well-known figures – Amazon’s “Lorena,” HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” (Sunday and Monday, 8 EST/PST) and Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” – have transcended the voyeuristic nature of the genre to become catalysts for change. A combination of timing, filmmaking style and the many hours used to tell these stories has catapulted Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly to the forefront of the cultural conversation and rewritten stories we all thought we knew.
The three stories of sexual and domestic abuse told in these projects are incredibly apt. “Lorena” gives a platform to Lorena Bobbitt’s story of sexual assault and domestic violence from her ex-husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, whose penis she infamously severed in 1993; “Neverland” tells the story of two men, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, who have accused pop icon Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them when they were boys; and “Surviving” details multiple allegations of sexual assault, statutory rape, domestic abuse and emotional abuse against R&B star R. Kelly.
In the past 17 months, our society has become primed to hear the stories of survivors of abuse and take them more seriously than we have before. When Bobbitt and her husband were both tried – for marital rape and mutilation, respectively –domestic violence wasn’t part of the national conversation, a point “Lorena” makes repeatedly.
Years after she was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity resulting from domestic abuse, Lorena Bobbitt remained fodder for penis jokes. One of the most powerful aspects of the series is footage from the trial, especially her testimony recounting her husband’s abuse. These scenes aired on TV back then, but now their impact is far greater and far more disturbing.
In the new recounting of the alleged abuse, “Neverland” eschews the previous media narrative, which labeled the star ‘Wacko Jacko’ but cast doubt upon the accusers. Jackson has weathered multiple accusations of child sex abuse; he was tried starting in 2004 for one such case, and he was acquitted. Many media outlets didn’t (and still don’t) name victims of alleged sexual assault, and many survivors were reluctant to speak out. The superstar sucked all the proverbial air in the courthouse, so the story of Jackson’s alleged abuse was, simply, his story, not the boy’s.
By centering the two part, four-hour “Neverland” narrative on Safechuck and Robson, director Dan Reed uncovers an emotionally haunting story of two boys who say their lives were damaged irreparably by a man so many people still love. The two men relate what they say happened to them in excruciatingly specific detail, down to Jackson’s supposed sexual preferences. Equally shocking is their description of what they called emotional manipulation by the pop star, including practice drills they say he ran to get them dressed quickly if someone approached the room where they lay in bed together.
“Surviving R. Kelly” is even harder to watch, in part because the filmmaking is more ham-handed and sensationalized. It’s all about Kelly – interviewing his family and friends along with his accusers, celebrity detractors and psychologists – and paints a picture of the singer’s life and legal troubles in broad detail.
Every moment is a gut punch. The interviews with Kelly’s accusers are intensely personal and even exploitative at times. Often, the camera lingers too long on their faces, streamed with tears, as they reach for tissue boxes at their feet. Some walk out of the camera range to sob. Scored partly with Kelly’s own songs and jagged, movie-of-the-week-style music, the series is salacious, but that’s what makes it so effective.
To get fans, law enforcement and the general public to wake up to what the series says is a pattern of criminal activity, the blunt, relentless style Lifetime often employs for true-crime movies is effective. Kelly has faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, was the subject of investigative reporting about a “sex cult” and was tried and acquitted on child pornography charges in 2008. And yet his career flourished as he continued touring and releasing music. Time’s Up, the Hollywood-funded post-#MeToo foundation, tried a “#MuteRKelly” campaign last year, with little success.
But it took, of all things, this Lifetime documentary to prompt action from Kelly’s former musical collaborators like Lady Gaga, his record label and streaming services including Spotify. Kelly has since been arrested in Chicago on 10 counts of criminal aggravated sexual abuse.
The growth of streaming services and other outlets hungry for programming has enabled more of these stories to be told, at expansive lengths. And the more they have to say, the more their audiences listen. Six installments of tearful women, frightened parents and disgusted commentators gave power to “Surviving.” The squirm-inducing four-hour “Neverland” is exhausting and compelling. And Amazon spends four hours with “Lorena” to dig into every detail of her case and life, from her marriage to the present day.
TV remains in the peak of a true-crime boom that kicked off in 2015 with “Making a Murderer.” That docuseries persuaded enough viewers to petition for the release of its subjects, Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey, that then-President Obama had to respond. At this point, we are primed to believe documentaries.
As audiences continue to embrace true-crime stories and current events keep leading us to reckon with history, one thing remains clear: There will be plenty more docuseries that make us question what we thought we knew.
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