SUNDANCE 2020: Russell Simmons accusers go ‘On The Record’ in controversial doc

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Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick unveiled their highly-anticipated and equally controversial documentary On The Record at Sundance and the crowd that gave it two standing ovations didn’t seem to mind that Oprah Winfrey pulled out of the project weeks before its debut.

The first film to dive into the numerous allegations of sexual assault against music mogul Russell Simmons lost its backing from Winfrey and its distribution deal with Apple+ on January 10 when Winfrey revealed she didn’t think it was ready. Producers persisted despite the highly-publicized fall out that threatened to call its credibility into question before anyone ever laid eyes on it.

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The documentary isn’t just about Russell Simmons and the numerous accusations against him but also highlights the troubling position Black women find themselves in when it comes to the #MeToo movement. Through several interviews from accusers, industry insiders, editors and #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke we see that the rules that have governed the movement don’t always apply to Black women.

Aside from enduring the trauma of the assaults, we’re forced to reckon with the damage done to the culture when a successful Black man is taken down. The film points out the ways Black women have put the protection of the Black man and the culture in front of their own needs for centuries and how that innate desire to hold up our men contributes to them getting away with atrocities against us.

On The Record also indicts a system that doesn’t believe Black women the way they believe white accusers. No one listens when a Black woman says no and no one listens when a Black woman says she was raped. Why and how that trend persists is traced back to slavery in one particularly poignant moment, but the film seems to go an inch deep and a mile wide with many of its assertions.

The same goes for the stories we get from Simmons’ accusers. There are certainly enough cringe-worthy details shared from the likes of former Def Jam exec Sil-Lai Abrams, Mercedes Ladies member Sherri Hines, and others to conclude that Simmons is a serial offender, but their stories seem rushed, their appearances limited, and the details scarce. It’s easy to understand why Oprah Winfrey felt the film wasn’t ready.

It’s strong, but not as strong as it could be. Perhaps not as strong as it needs to be to chip away at the rampant subjugation of women in the music industry. There could have been more. More women, more details, more examples of who covered this up and how. Also missing are the voices of men who undoubtedly witnessed, participated, or supported this toxic culture. In the 90-minute flick, we only hear from two men and I can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to confine this very layered story into such a tight package. Why not make it a series a la Surviving R. Kelly?

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We watch as Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive at Def Jam Recordings who accused Russell Simmons of numerous aggressions ranging from exposing himself to full-blown rape, wrestles with coming forward ahead of her 2017 New York Times interview. The Stanford graduate chronicles her rise to the top of the music game and how much she respected and admired Simmons as a mentor who believed in her talents. We hear how she endured so much and let so many wrongs slide for the greater good of the culture and her career, and we see the havoc her decision to share her experiences with Simmons has wreaked on her life.

On The Record is an important step in the right direction when it comes to giving voices to Black women. For many, it will illuminate just how deep these issues go and how race plays a part in our reluctance to come forward against our tormentors. It also barely scratches the surface when it comes to demanding justice and changing a long-established system of oppression.