From Michael Jackson to R. Kelly: Documentaries Offer Justice Courts Have Not

Why documentaries that center on the victims, not the celebrities, can lead to real social change.
"Leaving Neverland"
"Leaving Neverland"

Stories from sexual assault survivors often remain untold; justice can be even more rare. However, there’s a spate of documentaries that sprang from accusations against famous men, and they could have significant impact beyond the court of public opinion.

The six-part “Surviving R. Kelly” premiered on Lifetime January 3, and the two-part “Leaving Neverland,” premiered on HBO  March 2. The series share a topic — a famous musician who used his power to engineer repeated sexual assaults on underage victims. However, what’s more noteworthy is their stories don’t focus on the celebrity; they emphasize on letting survivors speak out. It’s a creative decision with the potential to create real impact on the future perception of these cases.

“We are experiencing a golden age of documentary-making,” filmmaker Joe Berlinger told IndieWire via email, “and as investigative print journalism has been decimated by the impact of the internet and the line in television news has gotten blurry between ratings-driven entertainment vs. journalism, many stories of social injustice are only being told by independent documentarians.”

Faith Rodgers, Lizzette Martinez, and Jerhonda Pace, featured in "Surviving R. Kelly."
Faith Rodgers, Lizzette Martinez, and Jerhonda Pace, “Surviving R. Kelly.”Lifetime

R. Kelly’s first appearance in court over sexual misconduct allegations stretches back to 1996, and reported pieces about his treatment of women had been in the mainstream press since July 2017. However, since “Surviving R. Kelly,” his music has been pulled from radio stations, former collaborators have apologized for working with him, his record deal has been put on hold, and he is the subject of criminal investigations in three different states.

Immediately after the release of “Surviving R. Kelly,” Lifetime senior VP of unscripted development and programming Brie Miranda Bryant told IndieWire that reaction to the miniseries had “now transcended the doc. I mean, we had always said that the survivors’ stories never started or stopped with the documentary, by any means. But now I think that this documentary has become a catalyst for a larger conversation that this country needed to have around sexual violence. … Not only has this become a national conversation, but it’s now a global conversation. I don’t think we could have ever expected that.”

The “Surviving R. Kelly” producers said impacting Kelly’s career wasn’t their intention. “From the beginning, [R. Kelly] was not so much the focus, but… these women and allowing them to have the platform…to be heard,” Bryant said. “That’s always been the driver of this ship — providing that platform, more than anything else. We feel that we did accomplish that.”

No game-changing documentary broke the Bill Cosby case; it took years of accusations before he faced charges. However, lawyer Gloria Allred, who represented many Cosby accusers, told IndieWire that her efforts to put her clients’ names and faces into the public sphere, via press conferences and a 2015 “Dateline” special, helped not just with the court of public opinion, but with those working to uncover the truth.

Gloria Allred, Adobe
Gloria Allred at IndieWire’s Sundance StudioClayton Chase

“Ultimately, I do think that it had some impact and certainly was of assistance to investigators, because they could see the number of women and the type of women and the names of the women who were making the accusations,” Allred said. “And that would be important in identifying for them who else might have been impacted by Mr. Cosby. Originally, for example, the prosecution in Pennsylvania declined to prosecute the first time when it was only Andrea Constand who was alleged to be the victim.”

The R. Kelly documentary, Allred noted, created “a powerful incentive” for prosecutors to pursue legal action against the singer. “Much of it was due to that Lifetime documentary, in the sense that they now knew there were multiple accusers who were willing to speak up and out on this,” she said. “And so there were that many, it was likely that there were more who would also be in the position of saying that he did it to them as well. And I think that in fact is exactly what happened, because I’m being contacted by a number of people who were not in the documentary who were also making accusations against Mr. Kelly. Would that have happened without the documentary? Unlikely.”

Allred compared viewers watching survivors tell their stories on screen to the experience of “jurors in a court of law. They are able to assess who’s saying it and their credibility and whether they believe them or not.”

With multiple survivors on screen, she added, “the more it is likely that the public will reach an opinion, usually in support of the survivors. That may not be the case, and generally isn’t where the first one comes out or the second or third one — when I said comes out, [I mean] speaks about their experience. But the more that comes out, then comes the question, well, are all these women lying, or is the accused the one who is lying when he denied it?”

Bryant noted that one reason “Surviving R. Kelly” made an impact when previous reported pieces hadn’t was that “there’s power in numbers. … The one thing in the very beginning, when we only had a couple of people, we realized that we needed to bring more and more into the fold to help us tell this story.” All told, 54 people were interviewed.

“It’s one thing to read an article,” said executive producer Jesse Daniels. “It’s another to see our survivors tell their stories. You see the emotion on their face[s] and the pain that they’re reliving. It’s powerful. I think that’s something that’s really struck a chord.”

Allred added, “Depending on what they say and who said it, and if there is also some corroboration of what they say, it definitely could have an impact in the court of public opinion. And also on the willingness of prosecutors to consider whether or not there should be a criminal investigation, and whether or not charges should ultimately be filed against the accused.”

Berlinger said he’s often witnessed the impact a documentary can have on an ongoing case or public issue. “Often politicians and/or stakeholders in an issue won’t take action or do the right thing until there is public pressure,” he wrote. “Our own ‘Paradise Lost Trilogy’ whipped up huge international support, which in turn caused pressure to release the West Memphis Three from death row for Damien Echols and life-without-parole sentences for Jason Baldwin and Jesse Miskelley Jr. My film ‘Intent to Destroy’ has raised the dialogue about Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide. ‘The Cove’ had an amazing impact on dolphin slaughter in Japan. ‘Inconvenient Truth’ with taking action on Climate Change. The list goes on and on.”

Leaving Neverland HBO
“Leaving Neverland”Sundance / HBO

Many aspects of “Leaving Neverland” are horrifying to watch, including the fact that Wade Robson and James Safechuck weren’t the first survivors to come forward. Accusations of inappropriate behavior against Jackson first surfaced in 1993 — but Jackson dodged those charges, in part thanks to the testimony of Robson and Safechuck.

“Leaving Neverland” gives both men the opportunity to correct the record and discuss the full truth about their relationships with Jackson, and it’s staggering. Since Jackson is deceased, he can’t sue the “Leaving Neverland” producers for libel — although the Michael Jackson estate is suing HBO for $100 million. In his review, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote that after watching “Leaving Neverland,” “You’ll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again. In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all.”

It remains to be seen how “Leaving Neverland” will impact Jackson’s legacy, but the attention it’s received supports the rise of similar documentaries. Allred felt that “people will have to make a choice about whether they’re going to appear or not. And I do think that some due diligence should be done by the producers… But I’m optimistic that there’s more attention paid by the criminal justice system. And if there are good ratings for documentaries like this, that as many eyeballs are watching, that’s going to encourage others to make this kind of documentary as well.”

That’s a good thing, she added, “because many of these women have never been able to share their truth publicly. Never felt comfortable doing it, didn’t have a vehicle to do it. And now they do feel comfortable and they have a vehicle to do it. And I do think there’s feeling in our culture that that is the right thing to do.”

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