In June, the harrowing documentary series Surviving R. Kelly took home a prestigious Peabody Award for exposing the decades of abuse perpetrated by the singer against underage girls and young women, all with the complicity of the music industry and his fans.
But according to a new report from THR, the road the the Peabody was not a smooth one, with the entire original editing team—the majority of whom are Black, with one Latinx editor—quitting the project on the basis that their notes were being ignored. And yet while much of their work was ultimately included in the final cut, the team was not listed in the credits.
A team comprised entirely of BIPOC editors is a rarity in the film world, and such a lineup indicated that the production leaders recognized the importance of Black input in the production process. The editors began to assemble the series’ first two episodes, wading through hours of interviews with survivors as they worked to introduce Kelly’s background, like his marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah and the allegations that were revealed in a Chicago Sun-Times exposé, and other topics: But then:
After the editors shared their first internal cut with colleagues at Bunim/Murray, Surviving R. Kelly EP and Kreativ Inc. CEO Joel Karsberg (Celebrity Wife Swap, Dropped) returned to them with notes asking for significant changes. Karsberg, who is white and Swedish, alongside EP Jesse Daniels, an American who also is white, had partnered with creator Simmons to bring the show to Lifetime. The notes asked to spend more time telling the story of Kelly’s rise to music stardom and materially increase the use of his voice and image while emphasizing his talent and celebrity. The notes also asked to change up sequences that cut between survivors by adding in more narrative with Kelly because, the notes suggested, the audience might stop paying attention to the series without interruptions. The notes further argued that the show should be crafted more like a true-crime series and include reminders of Aaliyah’s greatest hits, several sources say.
The editors pushed back, arguing that “the proposed edits would center the alleged perpetrator and his talents instead of the survivors’ stories.” They also said that the changes would sensationalize the show, disregard its Black audience, and be insensitive to survivors and the Black community.
But these concerns were seemingly ignored, and the editors were never given the chance to discuss the changes. Ultimately, all five editors, plus an assistant story editor, resigned en masse. Assuming the final product would not include their work, they also asked to be removed from the credits.
“The thing that has been missed across the board is nuance,” on editor, Stephanie 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?”
When they saw a significant amount of their work onscreen, some of the original group asked to have their credits restored, which producers partially did. They remain credited on only some streaming platforms.
Executive producer dream hampton stood steadfastly by the team throughout, telling THR that “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.
“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.”