In her 1999 book, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down,” the cultural critic Joan Morgan describes eloquently the ways in which racism often makes it difficult for black women to call out sexism within their own communities. “I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones,” she wrote.
She reiterates that sentiment in “On the Record,” a wrenching new documentary by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, streaming on HBO Max. The film details the allegations of sexual assault against the music mogul Russell Simmons, but its scope is much wider: It explores the particular (and often overlooked) struggles of black women in the #MeToo movement. At its center is Drew Dixon, 48, who says Simmons raped her in 1995 while she was a rising A&R executive at his pioneering company, Def Jam Records. Dixon didn’t speak publicly about the incident for more than two decades, fearing that challenging the “godfather of hip-hop” would amount to a betrayal of her community. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” she says poignantly. “I love the culture. I loved Russell, too.”
“On the Record” closely follows Dixon before, during and after her decision to go public with her accusations in a December 2017 article in The New York Times. It also weaves in the testimonies of seven other women who say they were raped by Simmons — including the writer Jenny Lumet, the former assistant and model Sil Lai Abrams and the hip-hop artist Sherri Hines. (Simmons has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex and described his life as “devoid of violence” in a written response to the filmmakers.)
The stories of these women hit the familiar beats of the countless #MeToo narratives that have emerged since the reckoning of Harvey Weinstein three years ago: abuses of power, derailed careers, fearful silences, doubts and dismissals. But for black women who have been assaulted by black men, the quest for justice is intersectional. It involves negotiations between solidarity and salvation.
The film communicates these complex ideas with quiet, forceful emotional clarity. It’s the latest in Dick and Ziering’s formidable oeuvre of documentaries on the subject: Their previous collaborations, like “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the military, and “The Hunting Ground,” about rape on college campuses, provoked strong, polarized reactions and substantive policy changes. “On the Record” is a relatively modest film — more character study than exposé — but it has already attracted considerable controversy. Shortly before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Oprah Winfrey, one of its executive producers, dropped out, citing creative differences, and the filmmakers lost their distribution deal with Apple TV. The film is now debuting Wednesday on HBO Max.
Amid speculation that Simmons might have pressured Winfrey to withdraw, she told The Times that she continued to stand by the women in the film but felt that their stories hadn’t been sufficiently “elevated,” and that the film lacked an appropriately broad context that took in the “debauchery” of the music business at the time. Winfrey’s concerns about the narrow focus and selective context don’t seem misplaced, but these strike me as strengths rather than shortcomings. “On the Record” is not a work of journalism. Most of the accusations have been reported on extensively in the last two years in various publications. What the film does is bring these accounts to living, breathing and moving life, taking us beyond the media cycles of allegation and denial to a survivor’s intimate confrontations with cultural pressures and trauma.
Dixon makes for a stirring and charismatic protagonist, her face lighting up with joy as she describes walking the streets of Brooklyn with Biggie Smalls and putting together a Grammy-winning record with Method Man and Mary J. Blige. When the harassment began, she thought her talent would protect her from danger. “I am an executive with value, and he’s a businessperson,” she says. When she’s proved wrong, it’s a crushing lesson: Misogyny razes all ideas of value and worth, even in seemingly meritocratic settings.
A few years later, while working a different job at Arista Records, Dixon is confronted by this reality all over again. When she rebuffed the advances of L.A. Reid, then the chief executive, she says he punished her by passing on two up-and-coming artists she had scouted: Kanye West and John Legend. (Reid has said he apologized if anything he had said or done had been “misinterpreted.”)
Employing a plain, by-the-numbers style, Dick and Ziering make a deliberate choice to let their interviewees take center stage, contextualizing their stories with some archival images. These inserts can feel glib. One hasty sequence, which seems to support some of Winfrey’s reservations, starts with excerpts from rap videos to demonstrate the prevalence of sexism in hip-hop, then follows up with clips from songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to clarify, rather awkwardly, that sexism isn’t confined to hip-hop.
But these nominal bits of editorialization are supplemented by a superb cast of cultural commentators, who represent the real, intellectual force of “On the Record.” In addition to Morgan, they include Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar behind the theory of intersectionality, and Kierna Mayo, the former editor of Ebony magazine.
As Dixon and the other survivors describe their painful experiences of harassment and shame, the commentators situate them eloquently within the broader picture of African-American history and raise important questions that have often remained at the periphery of the #MeToo movement. They explain, for instance, how black women’s fear of speaking out against their abusers is rooted in the legacy of false rape accusations against black men — and that the criminal justice system offers little hope to communities that have long suffered its biases.
The filmmakers do an admirable job of switching between these micro and macro perspectives in a tight and accessible 95 minutes. Their movie makes a sincere case for Dixon’s quiet plea to the camera: “It’s time for somebody to acknowledge the burden and the plunder of black women.”
On the Record
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.