What How We Remember R. Kelly and Aaliyah's "Relationship" Says About Us

by Carolyn Strong We all knew Lifetime’s recent biopic of the late singer, Aaliyah, would be awf...

by Carolyn Strong

We all knew Lifetime’s recent biopic of the late singer, Aaliyah, would be awful. The family did not authorize the film, nor did it allow Lifetime to use Aaliyah’s original recordings. There were also a number of casting missteps. So yes, the Wendy Williams produced “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B” was doomed from the start. When those on social media jumped in with both feet to rip apart the movie (as well as everyone associated with it), it was no surprise. However, what did surprise me was (a) the way the film depicted the “relationship” between 15-year-old Aaliyah and 27-year-old R. Kelly; and (b) the fact that the film didn’t receive more backlash for this irresponsible portrayal of their very inappropriate relationship.

We all know the story: 15-year-old ingĂ©nue Aaliyah’s first album, the ironically titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” was produced by superstar singer and producer R. Kelly. Seemingly overnight, Aaliyah goes from a little girl that no one had ever heard of to the young woman that everyone wanted to be. And then the rumors started, with people talking about R. Kelly and Aaliyah as if their relationship ran much deeper than an artist and her producer. Many suspected there was an inappropriate sexual relationship being carried on between the two, despite the fact that people connected to both parties vehemently denied the rumors. And even after the infamous marriage license surfaced—in which Aaliyah listed her age as 18—the official story never wavered, “There is no relationship, our dealings are strictly professional.”

Oddly enough, both careers survived the scandal virtually untouched. It wouldn’t be until years later that the world would truly be exposed to R. Kelly’s predatory appetite for young girls. Although, this is something those of us who grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1990s have been hearing about since before Public Announcement. With that being said, one must ask the question: Why did Lifetime choose to romanticize this clearly, inappropriate and illegal relationship between a grown man and a child?

Before the movie aired, I wondered if this particular chapter in the singer’s short life would be addressed in the movie. Once they announced it would be, I wondered if it would be handled with the honesty and sensitivity that it deserved. From the first time they showed the actors portraying the two on screen together, I immediately knew that it was not going to be handled tastefully or with a proper lens at all.

From the moment the fictitious Robert Kelly and Aaliyah Haughton begin to interact on screen, you can see that Kelly is grooming her, just like any other sexual predator grooms their child prey. Showing her his own vulnerability and showering her with compliments, he is able to seem non-threatening and unintimidating, while also showing her just how much he cares about her. After this exchange, Lifetime’s version of Aaliyah’s story takes a very “Romeo and Juliet” turn, one I didn’t see coming.

We see Aaliyah lying to the press about her “strictly professional” relationship with R Kelly; and then the next thing we see is her taking a car to his home to be with him. We hear her saying things like, “I wish we didn’t have to hide.” And him replying, “No one would understand, “ and, “We have to wait until you are 18.” I think one of the most troubling lines during this scene at R. Kelly’s home is, “God wouldn’t put you in my path and make me feel this way if we weren’t destined to be together.”

This escalates to a climax when Aaliyah’s parents find out about the relationship, after she and R. Kelly announce they illegally got married by faking Aaliyah’s age on a marriage certificate. It becomes even more Capulet and Montague—Lifetime trying to portray them as star-crossed lovers—complete with Aaliyah crying and screaming, “But I love him! This isn’t fair!” She claims that she hates her parents and they are trying to ruin her life. This is typical behavior for a 15-year-old who can’t be with a boyfriend. But R. Kelly was not a typical high school boyfriend; he was her 27-year-old spouse.

Just when you think that this romanticized tale of a now-known pedophile preying on a 15-year-old girl has gotten as egregious as possible, Lifetime decided to live tweet during the film on their official Twitter account. I find it very hypocritical that a network that makes most of its money defending the virtue of young white girls in movies such as “She’s too Young” and “Too Young to Marry” would appear complicit in the statutory rape of a child.

Throughout the movie, Lifetime tweeted things like, “This chemistry is so real right now,” and “Is Aaliyah too young to know?” There was also this ridiculous tweet: “Are Aaliyah’s parents being fair?” They were somehow insinuating that they should have allowed their 15-year-old daughter to stay married to a man almost twice her age, a man who was a predator.

I watch Lifetime enough to know this is not behavior they typically condone. Because of this, I cannot help but ask myself: Would this relationship have been portrayed in this way if we were talking about a 15-year-old white girl?

In the year 2014, I find it hard to believe that we, as black girls and women, still find ourselves trapped in the Jezebel stereotype--juxtaposed with the untouchable virtue of white womanhood. Shame on Lifetime for reinforcing this harmful and problematic stereotype! By portraying R. Kelly as Romeo—seemingly overcoming obstacles for true love, instead of taking advantage of young, impressionable girl—the network did us a disservice. Especially since we know that this is not how Lifetime normally handles issues that relate to pedophilia on its network.

This was never a love story. It was an inappropriate relationship between a child and an adult that never should have been allowed to continue—and never should have been romanticized by a made-for-TV movie.

Carolyn Strong is an educator in the Chicagoland area. She is an anti-bullying advocate and the author of Black Girl Blues: Small Group Sessions, Discussion and Activities to Combat Intra racial Bullying; she can be reached through www.bulliesstink.com.

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