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Recent court cases involving singers like R. Kelly and Britney Spears highlight the impact of a new and very popular type of celebrity-centered documentary. These films revisit past controversies, urging viewers to reconsider familiar stories of fame and abuse with modern sensibilities. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has the story.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's tough to imagine R. Kelly would be facing charges in court today without the influence of Lifetime's 2019 docuseries, "Surviving R. Kelly."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SURVIVING R. KELLY")
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: R. Kelly has denied accusations that he's holding women against their will in a sex cult.
SPARKLE: I should have never introduced my family to him.
DEGGANS: The six-part project seemed to transform public opinion about the singer instantly, with detailed accounts from women who allege Kelly spent decades pursuing underage girls for sex and abused women. Kelly has denied the allegations.
DREAM HAMPTON: You know, the - American history isn't American history until there's a movie about it, you know?
DEGGANS: That's Dream Hampton, an executive producer of "Surviving R. Kelly."
HAMPTON: I was packaging, you know, "Surviving R. Kelly" for people who probably didn't read beyond the headline.
DEGGANS: Hampton says even though journalists have reported allegations against Kelly for many years, "Surviving R. Kelly" arrived when audiences were ready to listen to the women's stories and social media could spread news quickly about the public's reaction. And it's not the only recent documentary project which has pushed viewers to see stories with fresh eyes informed by the #MeToo movement's revelations about sexual harassment, assault and trauma.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE NEW YORK TIMES PRESENTS: FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS")
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Free Britney.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Free Britney 102. The #FreeBrittany movement is advocating for the end of Britney Spears' conservatorship.
DEGGANS: In February, "The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears" jumpstarted conversation about abusive media coverage of the pop star and the 2008 conservatorship which gave control of her finances to her father. Director Samantha Stark said she initially planned to just re-examine past media reports on Spears, which she found intensely misogynistic. But the film also exposed valid concerns about the fairness of the conservatorship, which Spears is currently battling in court. Stark says modern audiences react differently to the jokes and intrusive coverage Spears endured years ago.
SAMANTHA STARK: I'm the same age as Britney. And so when I was watching so much of the footage, I was kind of reliving my teenagerhood when it was so OK to bully people and shame people for being different. I do think we listen to what women have to say more now.
DEGGANS: Amy Ziering is co-director of "Allen V. Farrow," an examination of allegations that film star Woody Allen molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992, and "On The Record," a film featuring several women who say rap mogul Russell Simmons sexually assaulted them. Ziering says the celebrities some stars use to shield themselves can now be used to educate viewers.
AMY ZIERING: Would anyone really care to watch a documentary on conservatorship? No. You watched because it was about Britney Spears. So what is lovely about these films is we get to capitalize on the culture of celebrity for good - not for marketing, but actually to sort of enlighten people.
DEGGANS: Some critics say these films can be a little too one-sided to be fair. And celebrities like Kelly, Allen and Simmons have denied the crimes they're accused of in these projects. Not every film can resonate with the public. Drew Dixon, a former record executive whose allegations that Russell Simmons raped her are featured in "On The Record," says the project's impact was muted when media mogul Oprah Winfrey pulled out as an executive producer in early 2020. Still, Dixon says films like "On The Record" can help center the public narrative on the stories of survivors.
DREW DIXON: That's how we really humanize the experience and the pain of sexual violence.
DEGGANS: Given the popularity and critical success of such works, expect to see many more of these kinds of projects in years to come.
I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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