Robert is a master manipulator,” the R&B singer Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards says in the second episode of Lifetime’s new docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly. “Everybody knows it now. They didn’t know it back then.” Her voice is resigned in this sequence, a precursor to forthcoming scenes in which Edwards tearily expresses remorse for introducing the singer to her then 12-year-old niece, the alleged victim at the center of Kelly’s 2002 child pornography case.
Executive-produced by the writer and filmmaker dream hampton, Surviving R. Kelly painstakingly details the now widely known allegations that have thus far not hindered the 51-year-old megastar’s nearly three-decade career. The musician and his representatives declined to comment for the series. Kelly has largely denied the many accusations against him over the years; even his startling 19-minute July confessional track, “I Admit,” shirked accountability in favor of self-aggrandizement.
Lifetime’s rendering of Kelly’s story does not excavate unreported rumors with an eye trained uncritically toward salacious gossip. Rather, the documentary brings together the previously reported but nonetheless disturbing accounts of his accusers—and indicts the many people who have enabled his alleged abuses with their silence. Through its attention to overlapping patterns in the women’s accusations and in the social systems that fail young black girls and women, Surviving R. Kelly repeatedly makes an almost impossibly simple observation: The singer’s alleged history of systematized predation could not have occurred without a ready network of support.