There’s been a deafening two weeks of controversy surrounding the documentary On the Record, which chronicles allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse, and rape by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The film, which premiered Saturday evening at the Sundance Film Festival, made headlines when Oprah Winfrey, who was on board as an executive producer, removed her name from it, taking the distributor she had secured, Apple, with her.
The media circus surrounding Winfrey’s decision to back out has been cacophonous, compounded by concerns about the fact that the accusers’ stories were being told by white filmmakers. But one thing was clear after On the Record’s powerful debut screening in Park City: Whatever background noise there may be, the brave and convincing accounts of these women is what breaks through.
The film earned a standing ovation both before and after the showing, as the accusers who relayed their stories in the film joined directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering for a tearful Q&A.
“We’re centering the voices of black women,” journalist Shanita Hubbard, who is interviewed in the film, said, urging those in attendance to not let behind-the-scenes drama drown out the significance of the survivors’ stories. “I don’t want that to get lost. Because this isn’t just entertainment. And I’m prepared to push back and fight if the conversation stops centering black women’s voice.”
On the Record underlines the ways in which black women have felt disconnected from the #MeToo movement and how society’s racial ecosystem and power structure has systemically silenced survivors of color. It’s unfortunate that it’s become nearly impossible to separate the film’s content, at least on the streets of Park City, from Oprah Winfrey and controversy.
Typically, Winfrey’s involvement in a project shines a light of importance and provides a cannon-shot of reach and impact. In this case, her complicated ties to the documentary cast a shadow that blanketed almost all conversation to do with its mission.
On the Record relays allegations from several women who accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. The centerpiece of the film is Drew Dixon, who told The New York Times in 2017 that Simmons had raped her when she was a young executive at his Def Jam record label.
Dick and Ziering, who had previously collaborated together on The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, documentaries investigating sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, respectively, followed Dixon for two years as she grappled with the decision to go public with her allegations. Dixon is among 20 women who have accused Simmons of sexual misconduct, assault, or rape.
In interviews with The New York Times, Winfrey said she felt the film was being rushed to Sundance “before I believe it was complete.” When the filmmakers didn’t acquiesce to her request that the film be pulled from the festival, she pulled her backing.
Muddying the waters is the fact that Winfrey’s decision came after Simmons and allies launched a campaign attempting to convince Winfrey to withdraw her support, contacting her directly several times pleading Simmons’ case and hoping to sway her.
Winfrey told the Times that she still believed the women in the film, but felt that there were issues, including inconsistencies that needed to be addressed. She also said that Simmons’ comments had nothing to do with her decision: “I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film. I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.”
After the film had screened, Ziering addressed the scandal: “I just want to stress that this really was a collaborative effort from day one with all of the people involved. Any representation that that wasn’t the case is not an accurate representation of this narrative, of this story.”
When a question was asked about the optics of two white filmmakers telling the stories of black women and their culture, Dixon herself took the microphone to make a searing, impactful point about why it had to be these directors.
“A lot of this is about power, right? And ecosystems of power and, you know, all of us have kept our stories to ourselves for decades,” she said. “There are people within that ecosystem who knew our story, and some of those people are filmmakers. It’s an entertainment industry story, after all. But nobody told our story. Because the people who knew our story were subject to the same ecosystem.”
“To me, this is where allies matter, allies who are not subject to that same dynamic,” she continued. “They have traction that they can use to pull you forward, centering you with deference, which they did, to tell a story because they’re not subject to the incoming that even powerful black people are subject to. So to me, this is why the filmmakers are white, because they don’t have the same vulnerability.”
“He told me to stop fighting…”
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke in 2017, Drew Dixon was immediately transported back to events she had spent two decades burying. But she wasn’t sure if she was going to come forward with her story alleging that Russell Simmons had raped her. “As a black woman, I don’t know if this applies,” she said she remembered thinking.
When Simmons allegedly started to push her against walls and forcibly kiss her, a behavior that she said eventually escalated to exposing his erect penis to her at the office, she tried to brush it off. “I thought it was part of the culture and I would have to manage myself around it,” she said. She had secured her dream job and she didn’t want to risk it.
One night in 1995, Dixon and Simmons were at Bowery Bar with colleagues. At the time, she was overseeing hit recordings from Method Man and Mary J. Blige for Def Jam. Simmons had left first. Dixon needed to walk past his apartment to take out money for a cab home. He saw her and offered to arrange a car, inviting her up to wait, she said.
She immediately felt uncomfortable and tried to leave, but Simmons tempted her by saying he had a record demo he wanted her to listen to. He sent her to fetch it from the CD player in his room. She struggled trying to get the player to work. By the time she turned around, she said, Simmons was standing naked in the room, wearing only a condom.
Dixon said she fought him as he pinned her down on the bed. “He told me to stop fighting in a cold, menacing, detached voice that I had never heard before.” She blacked out during the experience. When she came to, she said, she was naked with Simmons in his bathtub. “Now we’re going to fuck all the time,” she recalled him saying, smiling.
Simmons has denied all allegations against him.
Dixon said she walked 22 blocks back to her apartment and sobbed under a cold shower. “I was reduced to nothing in that moment. I was nothing. I was trash,” she said. “I was a physical device he utilized for his pleasure.”
When she saw Simmons after the alleged attack at his office, she said he invited her to sit on his lap. She submitted a handwritten resignation letter soon after.
After rebounding and getting a job at Arista Records, Dixon blossomed, until L.A. Reid replaced Clive Davis as her boss. She said he would routinely invite her back to his hotel room, offers she would rebuff, making him increasingly angry. He began rejecting artists she brought to him, Dixon said, out of spite, including Kanye West and John Legend.
“Unless I sleep with L.A. Reid as a quid pro quo, I’m doomed,” Dixon said. She quit the business for good.
Nearly a dozen of the women who have publicly come forward alleging that Simmons had assaulted or raped them also tell their stories in On the Record, revealing allegations of a disturbing, predatory pattern of behavior and a culture in the industry that enabled it.
It’s the solidarity of those women that convinced Dixon to come forward. “I thought, ‘I’d like to be the warrior. I’m tired of being the victim,” she said.
“I am being silenced…”
Winfrey’s withdrawal underscores what many of the women who initially came forward with accusations against Simmons, including Dixon, have explained has been a concern as the #MeToo movement gained traction. Black women weren’t sure what their place was in the conversation and were anxious that, as a marginalized community, their accounts would not be validated.
When Winfrey backed out of On the Record, Dixon told the Times, “I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime. I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”
In a lengthy, rambling Instagram post as part of his efforts to put pressure on Winfrey, Simmons accused her of “only going after her own,” that by supporting his accusers she was betraying the black community.
Before making her decision, Winfrey sought the counsel of powerhouse director and producer Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us), whose harsh critique of the film was a major contributing factor in backing out. That doing so would give the impression that she was turning her back on fellow sexual assault survivors—the mogul has been candid about her past—and women of color who needed her support is something that weighed on Winfrey.
“She’s got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with,” DuVernay told the Times. “So if she walks away from the film she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
The truth is that Dick and Ziering devote much time in the documentary discussing the culture of misogyny in the music industry, the history of black women not being believed if they speak out, and the barriers that society put in place for them to join their sisters in the #MeToo movement.
Activist Tarana Burke, writer Bim Adewunmi, hip-hop reporter Keirna Mayo, journalist Shanita Hubbard, and activist Sil Lai Abrams, who is also one of Simmons’ accusers, are among the women interviewed to outline these issues with context, authority, and agency.
Near the end of the film, Dixon says, “I understand the burden and the plunder of black men. I think it’s time for society to understand the burden and the plunder of black women, too,” a line that earned loud applause at the premiere screening.
Punctuating that point: Both Simmons and Reid declined to be interviewed for the documentary and released statements calling the allegations untrue.
After 20 women came forward accusing him, Simmons moved to Bali, Indonesia, a country with no extradition treaty to the U.S. After being forced to step down from Arista Records following sexual misconduct allegations, Reid has started his own record label.
Not only has he not been cast aside by his industry, he has already secured $75 million in financing.