The world premiere of the Russell Simmons accusers’ documentary, On the Record, was a highlight at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving a standing ovation before the film ended. Although many distribution outlets steered clear of the controversial doc, it walked away with an HBO Max deal.
One of the most highly anticipated premieres at the Sundance Film Festival was the documentary about the women who have accused hip hop music mogul Russell Simmons of rape and sexual harassment, On the Record. However, the effort to bring the riveting documentary to Sundance felt a bit inflated when Oprah Winfrey distanced herself, and the film’s original distributor, Apple TV+ followed suit.
Having screened the film at Sundance, I can say that is a great shame both pulled their support, because On the Record is not only enthralling viewing, the women who bravely tell their stories convey the debilitating distress that women of color particularly face in reporting assault. Record demonstrates the dual barriers these women have encountered during the #MeToo movement: not only from the public at large who would rather believe a more famous, revered figure (Simmons), but also from within their own community. It is a heartbreaking conflict that made for very difficult (but necessary) viewing. And let me tell you, there was hardly a dry eye in the audience, including the gentleman sitting next to me. This groundbreaking documentary is exactly why you go to Sundance.
Winfrey supposedly withdrew her support of the film because of inconsistencies she felt about Drew Dixon, a hit record producer who worked on records with Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Kanye West, and Whitney Houston. Dixon’s accusation of rape by Russell Simmons in 1995 was reported by The New York Times in a 2017 exposé piece, and is at the center of On the Record. It’s dispiriting to hear about Oprah’s misgivings because once you hear Dixon’s very personal, heartfelt account of working with both Simmons at Def Jam Records, the amount of times he sexually harassed her prior to the 1995 rape, and then being harassed again by L. A. Reid at Arista records, there’s no question about Dixon’s courage and credibility. To her credit, Oprah did say she believed Dixon in general.
Simmons contacted Oprah Winfrey prior to Sundance, but the media mogul has said this did not play into her decision. Others have said that perhaps she was still reeling from the dramatic criticism she withstood after supporting the Michael Jackson accusers’ documentary last year at Sundance, Leaving Neverland. Winfrey has also said she felt On the Record was perhaps not harsh enough in its criticism of the mysoginistic hip hop culture of the time the Simmons’ reported assaults occurred, the 1990’s.
HBO Max will be airing the documentary on its streaming service, but not on the main HBO channel, as of yet. It’s disappointing that many other distributors shied away from picking up the divisive film, including Focus Features, CNN Films, Netflix, among others. The film will also likely play in theaters for a very brief time, for Oscar contention purposes. I also spoke with someone at Sundance involved with the film originally, who was asked to help with the re-enactments that were planned for the original iteration. Thankfully, those plans were scrapped, and the film’s strength rested on the shoulders of the women simply telling their stories, which spoke volumes. The fear of being aligned with such a polarising film underscores the very reason this film needs to be seen.
“The fierce determination of Drew Dixon and all of the women who bravely chose to share their stories in On The Record moved us profoundly,” said Sarah Aubrey in a statement, HBO Max’s head of original content, according to The New York Times. “I’ve been impressed with Amy and Kirby’s work over the years covering this complex subject matter, and look forward to this film finding the widest possible audience.”
Produced and directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, On the Record illustrated the conflicting cultural forces that silence women of color from reporting sexual assault within their own community, told in heartbreaking detail by not only Drew Dixon, but also Sil Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Sherri Hines, and Keri Claussen Khalighi. After listening to the women tell their stories, there is no doubt about their validity. Dick and Ziering have tackled ingrained sexual abuse before, in Twist of Faith, The Hunting Ground, and The Invisible War, about violent sexual assaults in the U.S. military. They did not shy away from the deeply rooted prejudices that made On the Record especially arduous to approach.
Dixon’s accounting is at the heart of the film, as she poignantly talks about coming forward about the “godfather of hip hop.” She further describes not wanting to be mistaken as one of his “tall, skinny bitches,” among other derogatory terms that demonstrate the toxic, mysoginistic culture that pervaded the hip hop music industry. Dixon’s integrity is clear from the outset, as she describes the conflicting reasons she feared coming forward in the first place: not wanting to fail at her job, and not wanting to brand a black male icon a sexually predatory stereotype often associated with past lynchings and other crimes aligned with the male black experience in America. It’s heartbreaking to listen to these doubting rationales that prevented her from protecting herself.
“I took it for the team. I didn’t want to let the culture down. I loved the culture. I loved Russell, too,” Dixon laments at one point in the documentary.
Inspired to protect the initial accusers who come forward about Simmons– and who are left to dangle with little support– is what spurred Drew Dixon to tell her own story. On the Record shows us the sharp rebuke and atmosphere of doubt these women face when going through the process of coming forward. But after hearing their stories, you’re immediately struck by the consistency of violence employed in the Simmons accusations. Not only is there s a similar pattern used to subdue the women during their horrific encounters, but when you see Dixon, Lumet, and Abrams meet up for the first time in the film, you’re also struck by the similar type that Simmons clearly had. It threads a very disturbing pattern for Simmons, who has vehemently denied the encounters, but also moved to Bali in 2018, a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States.
On the Record is a gut-wrenching film, and Sil Lai Abrams’ recounting is an emotional punch to the gut. Abrams has accused Russell Simmons of raping her in 1994, but it’s the self-destructive way she copes with the aftermath that offers one of the film’s most pivotal moments. She talks about turning to her toddler at the time, telling him, “your mom’s a failure,” and proceeding to take 18 sleeping pills in a suicide attempt. It’s hard to fathom any sympathy for Simmons after watching this despondent mother reveal such a moment of utter despair. It’s poignantly touching to watch her later find some solace in her meeting with Dixon and Lumet, who can at least support each other, by affirming their shared experience and survival. Their shared bravery is what leads Dixon to later call herself a “warrior,” a far cry from the reluctant witness she seems at first.
All these women worked in the entertainment industry. On the Record not only does a remarkable job in demonstrating the emotional toll that these women faced, but also how the industry has lost out on their creative input. Drew Dixon left hip hop because of her ordeal and is just now returning to the industry decades later. “What did we lose?” asks one woman interviewed, referring to the systemic burial of Dixon’s creativity and her “inner light.”
On the Record underscores the toll that hip hop’s toxic environment had on many of the creative female forces of the culture. These women were silenced for too long (and I’m guessing that there are still others who have not come forward). But in shedding light and offering a true discourse for their stories, it also paints a way forward for these women. We owe it to them to listen.