Aaliyah deserves better than her Lifetime biopic
We might expect a considerable number of flaws from an unauthorized biopic crafted on the cheap for Lifetime, the Hearst- and Disney-owned cable TV channel that once branded itself as “Television for Women.”
But Aaliyah Dana Haughton, one of the most distinctive voices in R&B in the last two decades, deserves much better than bargain-basement production values, wooden acting, a dismal soundtrack faking tunes that are no substitute for her own music, and a script that ignores many of the key facts in her story.
Most importantly, the many fans for whom she was and is a role model for self-empowerment deserve better than the sanitized, soft-pedaled version of her disturbing sexual relationship with Chicago producer R. Kelly when she was 14 and he was 27—a coupling that court documents annulling their brief and illegal marriage and interviews with people close to the ingénue portray as one of abuse and victimization, far from the “puppy love” seen in Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B.
The Lifetime film, which debuts on Saturday, has been controversial from the beginning. Aaliyah’s family never gave the project its blessing (they’re planning an alternate big-screen take), and the first actress cast for the starring role, the Disney Channel star Zendaya, dropped out of what she called a shoddy production. The movie’s future was in question until Alexandra Shipp (House of Anubis) signed on as Aaliyah and gossipy talk-show host Wendy Williams joined as executive producer, shepherding the movie to completion.
Williams spent a lot of time jawing about the Aaliyah/Kelly controversy in her days on talk radio, and she has said she pushed for the “true” story to be told in the film: “The Aaliyah movie was already being produced and… they were doing things wrong. I was like, ‘Look, if you’re going to make this Aaliyah movie, you gotta get it right, Lifetime. I love you, you’re good at wives who stab their husbands movies, but you gotta get this Aaliyah movie right.’ I was very popular on the radio for Aaliyah’s rise and untimely death. I want to hear about R. Kelly… Don’t skate over it. This needs to be a big plot line.”
The film doesn’t “skate over” relations between the “street but sweet” young singer and the self-proclaimed “Pied Pier of R&B”; it spends half its length taking Aaliyah from Catholic grammar school girl, to ambitious student at Detroit’s High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, to stardom and platinum success following her 1994 Kelly-produced debut. (That ascension is overseen by her uncle and Kelly’s manager Barry Hankerson, played by Lyriq Bent, a veteran of several Saw films.) But the well-established truth of what happened between Kelly and Aaliyah is almost entirely missing on screen.
Working from the flimsy 2002 book Aaliyah: More Than a Woman by Christopher John Farley, Williams, screenwriter Michael Elliot (Brown Sugar), and director Bradley Walsh (whose credits include episodes of Beauty and the Beast and The Listener) give us a guileless ingénue in Shipp as Aaliyah, and she promptly develops a schoolgirl crush on her producer. For his part, Clé Bennett (Rookie Blue) plays Kelly as an innocent charmer from humble beginnings who falls deeply in love with his earnest young protégé, perhaps because he sees something of his beloved mother in her when they share a Chicago-style pizza after recording.
The fictionalized couple secretly marries, but when they travel to Detroit to break the news to Aaliyah’s parents in her childhood home, her father—Sterling Jarvis playing the kind of dad who takes a sugary soft drink out of his kid’s hand and proffers an apple instead—says they must annul the union immediately, lest he ask the police to charge Kelly with statutory rape. (At the time of the marriage, she was still 15, nearly half Kelly’s age). With heavy hearts, the couple separates, never to speak again, while Aaliyah pouts for more than five years about the loss of her first “true love.”
The artistic triumph of Aaliyah’s second, Timbaland and Missy Elliott-produced album and the promising start of an acting career that would have seen her appear in the two sequels to The Matrix barely lift her spirits. She’s finally buoyed a bit when she begins dating hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash. Then, tragically, she dies at age 22 in a plane crash in the Bahamas, on Aug. 25, 2001.
This version of events with Kelly at the center of the film is deeply offensive not only as a hoary “frustrated lovers”/Romeo and Juliet cliché, but as a flagrant whitewashing of criminal sexual abuse. As Abdon M. Pallasch and I laid out in a series of unchallenged investigative reports for The Chicago Sun-Times spanning several years, and as I recounted in a much-cited timeline of Kelly’s crimes for WBEZ.org in July 2013, these are the facts:
When Kelly first met Aaliyah, she was 12, and he already was widely rumored in the music industry to “like them young,” abusing his position of wealth and fame to pursue illegal sexual relationships with underage girls.
According to a civil lawsuit filed in 1996, which he eventually settled with a cash payment, Kelly had already had at least two sexual relationships with underage girls, one 15 and the other 16, in the years before he met Aaliyah. One of those girls slit her wrists when Kelly ended the relationship and began sleeping with the then-14-year-old Aaliyah, as well as writing and producing her debut album, which he titled Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.
Shortly after the album’s completion, on Aug. 31, 1994, Kelly married the now-15-year-old Aaliyah at the Sheraton Gateway Suites in suburban Rosemont, having procured a falsified Cook County marriage certificate listing her age as 18. Some sources have said Aaliyah was pregnant. The singer’s family, including a furious Hankerson, separated the couple as soon as they stepped off a plane in Florida for their honeymoon, and Kelly and Aaliyah never spoke again. (Aaliyah did not have a child.)
In October 1994, the marriage was annulled in Detroit and lawyers for both sides reached a settlement that was sealed in Wayne County Circuit Court, though a copy was obtained by the Sun-Times. The court documents provided a nominal payment of $100 from Kelly to Aaliyah, with Aaliyah promising not to pursue further legal action because of “emotional distress caused by any aspect of her business or personal relationship with Robert” or “physical injury or emotional pain and suffering arising from any assault or battery perpetrated by Robert against her person.”
That language alone indicates that the relationship was far from innocent, but years later, Aaliyah’s mother told the Sun-Times: “Everything that went wrong in her life began then [with the relationship with Kelly].” And while Hankerson did not split with Kelly until more than five years after the marriage, and he’s never spoken about what happened between his niece and Kelly on the record, his attorney did share with the Sun-Times a letter that he sent to Kelly’s attorney. In it, Hankerson stated that he believed Kelly needed psychiatric help for a compulsion to pursue underage girls, and that Hankerson was in denial about that even after Kelly seduced Aaliyah because he didn’t want to believe the worst and Kelly was a master manipulator.
None of the facts above appear in Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, nor is there any hint that Kelly became the subject of dozens of legal claims from underage girls just like Aaliyah charging that they had been hurt by illegal sexual relationships with him. Also missing: The fact that Kelly was tried and acquitted in 2008 on charges of making child pornography in a notorious video that allegedly depicts him having sex with and urinating on a girl who was 14 or 15 at the time.
To be certain, many of the specifics of the Kelly/Aaliyah relationship remain a mystery, and neither side is eager to address them. But the facts that have been well-reported make the story even more dramatic: Aaliyah had the strength and the support system to recover from her relationship with Kelly and record two more brilliant albums (One in a Million in 1996 and the self-titled Aaliyah in 2001), as well as making significant inroads as a leading woman on screen even in the face of Hollywood’s aversion to African-American leads.
More significantly, with the false and phony version of the relationship presented in Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, Lifetime, Williams, and everyone involved with the film missed the opportunity to provide a stark example and a cautionary tale of how even smart, strong, and self-assured young girls can be victimized by older sexual predators, especially if those men are rich and famous.
In this way, the cycle of sexual predation is perpetuated, and it’s hard to imagine a greater insult to Aaliyah’s legacy than that.