Culture & Conversation Media

Fear and Fact-Checking: What You Face When Making a Film About Sexual Abuse

Leila Wills

Disclosing abuse—and trying to document it—can be difficult and dangerous.

As a filmmaker whose current work focuses on sexual abuse, I’ve often been asked why I tell stories about what some people consider to be unspeakable.

I can answer easily: Journalists need to tell stories that are in the public interest. I want to give voice to alleged victims’ claims and contribute to legislative change so they can have their days in court.

Recently, in the aftermath of Surviving R. Kelly, I’ve watched R. Kelly’s accusers be both embraced and bashed. I’ve seen series producer dream hampton simultaneously praised and criticized for how the six installments asked questions and for what—and who—was included and who was not.

Telling these kinds of stories is difficult—with the questions of why you are doing it and whether it’s a money grab, the threat of violence, and the challenges inherent to making a film from the raw material of allegations.

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I know this well since I’m in the process of producing Trapped in a Culture, a documentary on child sexual abuse allegations against Afrika Bambaataa, who is considered one of the founding fathers of hip-hop. In the 1980s, Bambaataa’s DJing at community centers in the Bronx brought together aspiring DJs, dancers, and rappers. With the release of his hit record “Planet Rock” in 1982, he became a hometown celebrity. My film documents the accounts of several men who say he abused them when they were minors between the 1970s and 1990s.  

Vetting these stories is mandatory. Like many people, I first heard the allegations online. Hearing them in person was difficult. But the men in my film were open about their claims, and as often is the case, the journalist is not the first to know. All of the men I’ve interviewed so far said they had shared allegations with family members, partners, or friends before going public.

Confirming those disclosures was a critical vetting step. In my research, I found evidence that at least some of the accusers had told others of their allegations: a self-published book in which an alleged victim names Bambaataa as his abuser; a video that surfaced on social media; and legally documented evidence of a police report that detailed disclosure to the person’s partner.

Vetting can be harder when it’s about a celebrity, something as terrible as child abuse, and also same-sex abuse. Members of Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation—a hip-hop cultural organization he founded and where he’s often venerated—tried to silence me legally or do damage control. Those attempts lent, in my opinion, further credence to the allegations.

And, as a journalist, you reach out to the accused person for their side of the story. In my case, Bambaataa had gone on a New York news program and denied all allegations. He would not speak to me and sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to halt my research.

It didn’t stop me. I kept going, trying to reach all the parties I could: the accused and the accusers; witnesses, if any, to the alleged crimes; possible enablers; people who could attest to the character of key parties or the atmosphere at the time; and other possible victims who might not want to speak publicly, but would do so privately.

But you’re always up against fear and time. A great number of child victims stay silent. “Recent research shows that victims don’t come forward on average until their early 50s,” said Marci Hamilton, head of the think tank Child USA. Survivors of child sexual abuse often need years of therapy, and many go without due to the financial burden. If and when they finally do come forward, even as adults, they could be afraid of losing favor, a position, or, as in the case of some people in my film, their lives.

A number of people interviewed for my film, not just the alleged victims, expressed fear of physical threat or harm. One person wore a bulletproof vest to every meeting. Another interviewee was fatally gunned down on the street three weeks after his interview in 2016. There is a suspect in custody and awaiting trial for the murder and armed robbery. There is no evidence that Afrika Bambaataa or the Zulu Nation had anything to do with the killing, but his violent death amplified the fear. Consideration of my own safety became paramount. Disclosing abuse—or trying to document it—can be dangerous.

Once I did my due diligence in research and interviews, the allegations in some of the cases boiled down to he said / he said. Every person who tells their story is responsible for it. But because there were so many people involved, either as possible enablers who looked the other way or witnesses who claim Bambaataa had a penchant for young boys, I felt comfortable reporting the accusations in a film.

In the case of Afrika Bambaataa, the statute of limitations that would apply has long run out. In New York state, a person who alleges child sexual abuse has until the age of 23, five years after turning 18, to bring criminal and civil charges against a perpetrator.

But next week, the New York Senate is set to vote on lengthening this oppressive time limit through the Child Victims Act. Laws can be changed, and even more than that, stories like Surviving R. Kelly and Trapped in a Culture make an impact, raising social and political awareness. Legislators watch the public’s reaction, and voters can press their elected officials for legislation changes or to support investigations; the latter seems to be happening already in R. Kelly’s case.

As legislatures around the country are moving to lengthen statutes of limitations, more accusers will have a chance to pursue legal remedies. And they deserve it.

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