Remember the R. Kelly trial? We almost thought it would never happen. The Pied Piper of R&B* has had almost six years of freedom to tour and pen bizarre epics, as his trial has been delayed by his own appendicitis, the judge’s falling off a ladder, and the lead prosecutor coming down with a case of the babies.
But finally, it has begun. And already, it’s very very weird.
Josh Levin laid out the scene in the courtroom yesterday.
A little bit after 1 p.m., the blinds are drawn and the lights go down. For the jury, there’s a giant screen on wheels in front of the jury box. For the press, there’s a Sony flat screen, lashed to an A/V cart with thick orange straps as if it’s a flight risk. The VHS tape starts to roll, and the first voice I hear belongs to Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, the one-time spokesman for the Money Store. As Palmer explains how you can easily lower your monthly payments, a guy with a shaved head who looks a lot like R. Kelly hands a young woman a folded-up stack of cash. “Thank you,” she says softly. He pulls down his pants. Fellatio ensues. A few seconds later, a sitcom laugh track kicks up. He goes off-camera and turns off the television, perhaps fearing that canned laughter isn’t an appropriate backing track for a taped sexual performance.
The prosecution’s case hinges on Kelly’s auteurship. In her opening statement, prosecutor Shauna Boliker argues that he “choreographed, produced, and starred in” the nearly 27-minute video. Kelly denies the video is his work. Whoever the videographer may be, his style is utilitarian. The image is bright and clear, and the director-star occasionally steps out of the picture to make sure the shot is framed properly, or to zoom in on an essential detail—say, the girl urinating on a tile floor. The choreography is also straightforward. The girl gyrates her hips from side to side like an exotic dancer; he moans lasciviously and orders her to move faster. The filmmaker’s creativity comes through more clearly in the set design. The action takes place in what the prosecution says is the basement of Kelly’s former home, a room that looks a lot like a log cabin—there is a handful of tall, green potted plants, and the walls appear to be fashioned from gigantic felled trees. No longer will I have to wonder what an Abe Lincoln sex tape might have looked like.
Kelly’s lawyers tried, exhaustively but futilely, to prevent the jury from seeing the video. This is understandable—when you’re defending an accused child pornographer, it’s best not to have the jury hear a man who looks just like your client refer to himself, on tape, as “daddy” as he begins to have intercourse with the alleged victim. (The girl’s answer when he asks her to initiate sex: “Yes, Daddy.”) There’s also the matter of his prolonged urination on the girl’s face and breasts, which stops and starts, and stops and starts, for what seems like minutes on end. It’s excruciating to watch.
Before the tape started rolling, I thought that a few people might have to leave the courtroom. The vibe in the room, though, is more uncomfortable than appalled, like we’ve all been dragooned into watching Porky’s Revenge at grandma’s house. Aside from one guy who occasionally breaks into a nervous smile, the jury is stone-faced and intent on the big screen. The two obvious Kelly fans in the room—a pair of young girls who’ve scored visitors’ passes—watch with their hands in their pockets and slightly downturned mouths. Kelly, wearing a dark pinstripe suit and a blue tie with diagonal orange stripes, his hair immaculately braided, tilts his head every so often, putting his chin on his hand to peer at the video from a different angle.
The prosecution really wanted to nail him on child molestation charges, but they haven’t been able to build the case they wanted, so now they’re going after him on the child pornography counts.
R. Kelly’s camp has tried a number of defenses in the preliminary stages in the trial. First they went with the argument that it wasn’t him on the tape (which Levin hilariously calls “The Shaggy Defense”). Then they were like, okay, maybe it’s him, but the girl was of age. Now they’re doing a little bit of both — the Shaggy Defense, but also arguing that the girl who is supposedly on the tape denies that it’s her. So we guess that’s a double Shaggy.
*-In the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a musician with a penchant for gaudiness leads a bunch of enthralled children to their eventual demises. We know R. Kelly has trouble with reading, but shouldn’t someone have maybe suggested some different nomenclature for a man constantly linked by rumors yo impropriety with minors? Ditto his album, The Chocolate Factory, which brings to mind the story of a creepy, rich recluse who
weeds through children to find a protége. Or you know, Aaliyah.
Do better, Arruh.