‘On the Record’ and the #MeToo Movement’s Colorism Problem
A new documentary follows the brave women who came forward to accuse hip-hop icon Russell Simmons of sexual abuse—and raises the question of whose stories we choose to center.
When The New York Times first reported allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Def Jam Recordings co-founder and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, they featured, in print, a triptych of women: former music journalist Toni Sallie, singer Tina Baker, and former A&R executive Drew Dixon. Dixon is also at the center of the documentary On the Record, which debuts today on the brand new streaming platform HBO Max. Noticeable in the Times’ triptych, and as she herself points out in On the Record, Dixon is one of a group of predominantly light-skinned black women, as well as a few white women (Baker is white), who have felt able to speak out against Simmons after decades of silence. Of all the allegations against Simmons, Dixon’s is most marked, with a fall from the success train as a direct result of Simmons’ allegedly raping her (as well as her subsequent boss L.A Reid’s alleged sexual harassment).
On the Record is a rigorous film, one that does the necessary work to contextualize the stories of Dixon, musician Sheri Sher, former model and activist Sil Lai Abrams, and many more women who’ve accused Simmons of assault and harassment, within contemporary and historical experiences of black womanhood in the U.S.
The documentary digs into the legacy of hip-hop and its misogynistic aspects as well as the misogyny that’s rife within the music industry at large—as much within music authored by white men as black men. Several black woman cultural critics are featured, from academic Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the term and tool “intersectionality”) to organizer Tarana Burke (who came up with “#MeToo”) to This American Life producer Bim Adewunmi. The rock and hard place black female survivors often find themselves between—of disclosing abuse and unintentionally opening black men up to harm from a racist state or not disclosing and letting the harm they’ve experienced from sexual assault destroy them—is seriously explored through the insights of these experts.
But the reasons I’ve listed for why Dixon’s story is so prominent—her “light skin privilege,” as she calls it in the documentary, and her very early success as Def Jam’s A&R executive at age 24—make it clear that the non-standard methodology for determining which #MeToo stories are credible and newsworthy enough to be told in major media has left the movement at an impasse. For instance, there is no standard on the number of contemporaneous corroborations required, when the accused should be contacted for comment, whether or not witnesses need to tell collectively consistent stories, who would count as a credible witness in the first place, what a credible company-initiated “independent investigation” looks like, and more. As a result, a certain kind of survivor voice has risen to the top since, in the place of any standard across media outlets and productions, we have relied on the personal perspectives of editors and producers, as well as the societal standing of the survivors themselves, to determine which stories ought to and can be told.
On the Record’s own inquiry toggles between the individual and communal, from the inscribed nature of rape in many cultures and its specificities within the particular ones represented in the film to the personal and collective histories of black female survivors of sexual assault. This approach is a step in the right direction, and makes for a strong film; at the same time, it further emphasizes the ways in which this #MeToo moment has failed the scores of women and communities who will never fit the Times’ template for credibility.
In the documentary, Dixon’s story remains the most prominent, both because of her willingness (and ability) to go on record with the Times in 2017, and because her story contains a narrative arc that fits metrics of relatability decided by the film industry and the focus groups film executives consult. Sher and Abrams’ stories do not hew as easily to the conventions of the success-train narrative (Mercedes Ladies was never signed by Def Jam and the group never became mainstream; Abrams briefly dated Simmons years before he allegedly raped her)—they don’t quite receive an arc in the documentary and have not been afforded a similar degree of attention to their stories as Dixon.
In our current #MeToo media landscape, every woman must have a solid, and preferably highly impressive, resume. Dixon contributed her talent management and music knowledge skill set to platinum records by Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, Method Man and Mary J. Blige, and created the soundtrack for the hip-hop documentary The Show. Sher founded the women’s hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, which was at the vanguard of unapologetic black womanhood in rap music. Abrams was an executive assistant at Def Jam for a few months before launching into a successful modeling career in Europe. Several other women also detail their accounts of being raped by Simmons in On the Record, including publicist Kelly Cutrone of The Hills fame, writer Alexia Norton Jones—whose grandfather was the famous book publisher W.W. Norton—and model Keri Claussen Khalighi. Jenny Lumet, who wrote the screenplay for Rachel Getting Married—and is the daughter of actress and singer Lena Horne and director Sidney Lumet—first detailed her allegations against Simmons in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter. Lumet appears in On the Record having created a survivors support group with Abrams and Dixon.
The burden of newsworthiness has twisted the narrative on rape culture into one about dashed prestige and power rather than one about how a focus on and idolatry of individuals with prestige and power in our society enables, protects, and even cultivates abusers. Of course, at the center of the tragedy and cruelty of rape includes the stolen potential of survivors who must spend much if not all of their lives after the assault picking up pieces. But in our #MeToo narratives, the media often conflates potential with success, which is to say, it is not merely the stolen potential to lead emotionally stable lives that many of these stories focus on but rather the stolen potential to have wealth, display incredible talent, and be famous, like the abusers.
On the Record takes an important step toward contextualizing rape culture within America’s history of racial capitalism, exposing the ways in which a legacy of slavery and norms within a cutthroat industry create a perfect storm for oppressing certain black woman workers. But a much more pointed approach will be needed in order to begin addressing the culture of abuse that infects the lives of the ordinary and the unchosen, those rarely loved by mass media and/or set up for conventional success.