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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Leila Latif

Surviving R Kelly Part III: The Final Chapter review – this glorious series has helped to make history

‘Charismatic survivor’ … Kitti Jones, who is interviewed in Surviving R Kelly Part III: The Final Chapter.
‘Charismatic survivor’ … Kitti Jones, who is interviewed in Surviving R Kelly Part III: The Final Chapter. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Learning about the crimes of Robert Sylvester Kelly is a gruelling experience for even the most unflappable among us. Anyone susceptible to being triggered by sexual abuse, violence and child cruelty should give the subject the widest of berths. But after two seasons of unflinchingly charting allegations of decades of horrific abuse enacted by R Kelly, the tone of Netflix’s third season is markedly different from what came before: it is joyful, at times bordering on giddy. The R&B megastar was found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2021 and faces trial for two more charges in Minnesota and 10 in Illinois. This is no longer just about survival – it’s a victory lap.

The programme does not understate its impact and begins with a montage of politicians and celebrities referencing it. At its most deliciously smug moment, it even shows footage of Kelly and his lawyers freaking out about the documentary, calling the creators and subject liars and fruitlessly mocking their campaign. Oronike Odeleye, co-founder of Mute R Kelly, grins from ear to ear as she talks about being sent the footage by those who thought it was “outrageous”, but she would respond: “No, it’s wonderful. This is beautiful. He knows who we are. He is actually feeling the effects of what we’re doing.”

With dozens of accusers, hundreds of witnesses and mountains of evidence, it may seem surprising that Kelly “feeling the effects” of his victims speaking out was not assured. But, as we are frequently reminded, the justice system is skewed in favour of powerful men, and for 30 years, his crimes amounted to little more than punchlines for Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari. The documentary credits not just itself but the cultural shifts post #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter for finally holding him to account. Journalist Jim De Rogatis appears frequently, having been the interviewee in a 2013 piece that sparked much of the activism and attention that snowballed as those cultural changes happened. One of his interview’s most potent and upsetting lines is quoted here by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke: “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: nobody matters less to our society than young Black women.” Now, seeing survivors empowered by this odious sadist’s comeuppance, taking their recovery and mental health seriously, and having their stories given weight not just by the documentary but by broader society, is beautiful to behold.

The abuse, of course, does not end with Kelly. Many lawyers, assistants, music executives and managers who were accused of facilitating his crimes were granted immunity by the courts or faced no real consequences. But even the most enraging injustices evolve into a moving tribute to the bravery of the victims, and the fortitude required to recount the worst events of your life and then have them picked apart by Kelly’s lawyers and many fans. Even for those familiar with the accusations that sent him to prison, hearing details of groomed Black children being raped, ejaculated on and forced to drink the urine and eat the faeces of a middle-aged singer is utterly nauseating. The journalist Taryn Finley is noticeably shaking as she says: “Even recounting, my body is kind of having the same physiological response that it had then. I was sick.”

But watching the four episodes, repulsion and righteous fury give way to immense pride in every activist, survivor, journalist and film-maker who took on this wolf in wolf’s clothing and demanded he be held accountable. Seeing their relief when Kelly is finally convicted is genuinely glorious. The show’s creator, Dream Hampton, accepts a large slice of the credit and receives effusive compliments in a conversation with fellow film-maker-activist W Kamau Bell to celebrate the tangible impact of her work. But she sets her ambitions even higher: to break down the system that underserves and abuses Black women. There is work to be done but, ultimately, this is a celebration, and it invites us to laugh at comedians speculating that the number of years in R Kelly’s sentence “is going to look like a bowling score”.

The show makes its intentions explicit: whatever motivated Kelly is unimportant. This is about the women who can now rebuild their lives while he rots in a cell. The charismatic survivor Kitti Jones almost pleads down the lens when she asks: “Can we focus on the fact that this happened here? And these Black women were heard and they made history. They fought no matter what they were up against.” For all the cruelty, this is ultimately a tale of David taking on Goliath. There are horrors that still need to be confronted, but for now, a well-deserved breath of relief can be taken, and a rapturous round of applause should be received.

Surviving R Kelly III: The Final Chapter is is available to watch in the UK on Crime+Investigation Play and is on Netflix in the US.

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