Black Editors on ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ Walked Out in Creative Dispute With Bunim/Murray

The post-production team's notes about centering survivors and addressing a Black audience fell on deaf ears at the production company.
Faith Rodgers, Lizzette Martinez, and Jerhonda Pace, featured in "Surviving R. Kelly."
Faith Rodgers, Lizzette Martinez, and Jerhonda Pace, "Surviving R. Kelly."

Long before it won a Peabody Award, the entire original editing team on “Surviving R. Kelly” walked off the project due to disputes over the creative direction of the Emmy-nominated docuseries, a new report from THR shares. The editors, most of whom are Black, resigned after notes about centering survivors and addressing Black audiences were ignored. Many elements of the original cut ended up in the final product that aired, but the first editing team was not listed in the credits.

Following reports of the dispute, their names have been restored to the Peabody Award website, but are not currently listed on Netflix. “Surviving R. Kelly” originally aired as six episodes on Lifetime in January 2019. It was followed with a five-part sequel earlier this year called “Surviving R. Kelly: Part II — The Reckoning.”

Though the members of the team have all signed NDAs, original members Daysha Broadway, Stephanie Filo, Bradinn French, Michael Griffin, and Stephanie Lyra all posted the same photo to Instagram in early June alluding to the dispute.

According to multiple sources who spoke to THR, the team expressed concerns over the cultural sensitivity of the series to white executives at Bunim/Murray, the production company which created “Surviving R. Kelly” — along with “The Real World” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” among other global hits. The team received notes from these executives to give the series a true-crime angle, focus more on Kelly’s music, and to contextualize Kelly and Aaliyah in a way that Black audiences would not need. The editors, four of whom are Black and one who is Latinx, believed this direction would be disrespectful to survivors as well as the series’ Black audience. When their notes fell on deaf ears, they took the highly unusual step to resign from the project together.

“The thing that has been missed across the board is nuance,” Filo told THR. “When dealing with race-specific topics, there is so much nuance and sensitivity that is needed on shows like this. Why is the response to what happened to the original team to gaslight those involved and just pretend their experiences weren’t valid?”

“Our intent and priority was always to give a voice to the women who were victimized by R. Kelly,” a representative from Bunim/Murray Productions and Kreativ Inc. told THR. “From the start, our goal was to enlist a diverse group, both in front of and behind the camera, to ensure the best and most accurate retelling of these women’s stories. This was a complex production, and so many people are responsible for what finally made it to air.”

Executive producer dream hampton, who also produced Lifetime’s follow-up series “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Impact,” stood by the editing team. She highlighted the ways in which Hollywood is passing the buck when it comes to dealing with systemic issues.

“The worst part about thinking about these larger issues, like sidelining Black editors on a project this sensitive, is that it’s doubtful the people who need to will take an honest look at this,” said hampton. “Instead, they focus on personality ‘problems’ and hierarchical protocols rather than the real issues. People will rush to defend themselves and change the optics rather than the way they work and do business.”

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