Oprah Winfrey’s seal of approval is one of the most powerful in the world of culture, and it turns out that’s as true when she removes it as when she bestows it. A month before this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one of the most anticipated movies set to premiere was a then-untitled documentary about the allegations of sexual assault against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War) and scheduled to be released through Winfrey’s deal with Apple TV+. But the movie’s profile skyrocketed two weeks ago when Winfrey announced she was withdrawing her support, not only taking her name off the film but also canceling its distribution deal. According to Dick and Ziering, Winfrey gave them just 20 minutes’ notice before announcing her decision.
On the Record, which premiered at Sundance on Saturday night, focuses on Drew Dixon, who accused Simmons in a December 2017 New York Times article of raping her in 1995. Then an A&R executive at Simmons’ Def Jam Records, Dixon had recently assembled the chart-topping soundtrack for the hip-hop documentary The Show. Dixon says that after a night at Manhattan’s Bowery Bar, she was preparing to grab a cab when Simmons offered to call her a car and suggested she wait in his apartment, using the promise of listening to a hot demo CD to entice her after she initially balked. There, as she told the Times and repeats in greater detail in On the Record, she remembers him pinning her down on his bed and raping her. Dixon then “blacked out,” she says, and the next thing she recalls is being naked in his hot tub. (Simmons has denied the accusations, and he says in a statement at the end of the movie that his life has been “devoid of any kind of violence against anyone.”)
Although Simmons has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, On the Record focuses on Dixon and her decision to go public, including some of her phone calls with New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli. But it is not solely her story, or even the story of Simmons and his alleged victims. Drawing on interviews with cultural commentators, academics, and activists, the movie addresses head-on the place, or lack of one, that women of color—especially black women assaulted by black men—have been accorded in the #MeToo movement. “As a black woman,” Dixon says in the movie, “I didn’t know if this applied.”
This is an ambitious task, and the movie—as Dick and Ziering’s The Hunting Ground did with college campuses and The Invisible War did with the U.S. military—also attempts to highlight the larger culture that enables sexual assault and preemptively discredits its victims. But the vast majority of On the Record’s interview subjects are black women, and Dick and Ziering are white, and while Winfrey’s objections have been frustratingly vague, it appears that it’s the movie’s attempts to tie Simmons’ actions to the culture of 1990s hip-hop that may have caused her objections. According to the New York Times, director Ava DuVernay offered a “harsh critique” of the film after Winfrey asked her to watch it “with an eye toward how well the two filmmakers, who are white, captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women,” and Winfrey’s longtime friend Gayle King explained on CBS This Morning that “She thought the documentary needed to breathe a little bit more and be put in context of the times. These allegations were many years ago, and now we’re in 2020.” Winfrey has also suggested there are “inconsistencies” in Dixon’s story that need to be addressed, although it’s not clear what she thinks those are. It also seems possible that Winfrey, who threw her weight behind Leaving Neverland, the documentary about Michael Jackson’s alleged history of sexual abuse that premiered at Sundance last year, was stung by criticisms, including from 50 Cent, that she was backing another attack on an iconic black cultural figure.
The generalizations about hip-hop’s turn from “party music” to a mainstream genre driven by misogynist and degrading lyrics can feel awfully broad. And in contrast to the scrupulous detailing of Dixon’s history with Simmons, her allegations that she was sexually harassed by L.A. Reid during her subsequent tenure at Arista Records are treated so cursorily that it feels like a drive-by. (When the Times first reported Dixon’s allegations about Reid, Reid responded, “If I have ever said anything capable of being misinterpreted, I apologize unreservedly.”) Meanwhile, the story that Reid rejected both Kanye West and John Legend when Dixon attempted to sign them illustrates how much the music industry’s toxic culture cost both her and the art form itself.
In many ways, Dixon’s story resembles those of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. She was an ambitious, prodigiously talented women in a thriving industry that offered the promise of a fast rise to the top if you made the right decisions and knew the right people. She recalls befriending Biggie Smalls when he was still “an entrepreneur” who could offer her safe passage down his block, and she brandishes the Junior Mafia demo tape he pressed into her hands. She heard a vamp on a Method Man track that sounded like it should be a song of its own, and she suggested pairing him with Mary J. Blige for their first duet. She says that when she first met then–Def Jam head Lyor Cohen, he mistook her for one of the “tall, skinny bitches” Simmons seemed to keep around the office, but she knew how to negotiate that world and how to grab Simmons’ attention, often by showing up at places she knew he would be. He was, she thought, just “this tragic ADD puppy that I had to keep retraining.”
But though the fair-skinned Dixon, a Stanford grad whose mother was the mayor of Washington, D.C., acknowledges how her “light privilege” could help her as she comes forward, she says she didn’t want to be responsible for taking down a man who has often been called the godfather of hip-hop. “For 22 years, I took it for the team,” she says. “I didn’t want to let the culture down. I love the culture. I loved Russell, too.” In the meantime, Russell Simmons reinvented himself as a lifestyle guru, authoring books about meditation and veganism.
Joan Morgan, the author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, explains that black women, wary of reinforcing the often fatal stereotype of black men as sexual predators, sometimes “allow race loyalty to buy them an early tombstone.” Another of Simmons’ alleged victims, Sil Lai Abrams, says she attempted suicide after he raped her in 1994. (In a bit of understated irony, one of the movie’s interview subjects is #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, a black woman often left out of stories about the movement’s origins.) The examples of Anita Hill and Mike Tyson accuser Desiree Washington weighed heavy on Dixon as what she describes as “unmetabolized trauma” lingered inside her. It took the public examples of Simmons accusers Keri Claussen Khaligi and Jenny Lumet to inspire her to come forward. Among the most moving moments in On the Record is a meeting between Dixon, Lumet, and Abrams, who are bound not only by their histories but by the gift they gave each other of knowing that they were not alone. (The sight of the three of them together also feels striking for another reason: It appears Simmons has a type.)
Winfrey, who removed Simmons’ contributions to a book of spiritual advice after the allegations were first reported, says that she did not pull out of On the Record because of pressure from him. But it wasn’t just the filmmakers who felt blindsided by her abrupt departure; it was his alleged victims. And while Winfrey said in her initial statement that she believed and stood behind them, her comments about “inconsistencies” and how the 1990s were an era of “debauchery” in the music industry seemed to undermine that gesture of support. Dick and Ziering are free to seek a new distribution deal, and given the attention around the movie, it seems likely they’ll leave Sundance with one in place. Oprah’s role in the story may be over, but the movie’s journey is only just beginning.