‘On the Record’ Explores Who the #MeToo Conversation Left Behind — Women of Color

Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering talk about their moving new documentary, which focuses on Drew Dixon, who for years stayed silent about her former boss Russell Simmons and her life as a sexual-assault survivor

When Drew Dixon left the music business around 2000, it was a shock to her colleagues. In the 1990s, she was one of the industry’s rising stars, the daughter of Washington D.C. politician parents who came of age as hip hop was becoming a defining cultural force. First at Def Jam, where she was director of A&R, and then at Arista as vice president of A&R, Dixon displayed a knack for spotting talent. She executive produced the seminal 1995 soundtrack album The Show, which highlighted rap’s up-and-comers and biggest names, and shepherded hit records for everyone from Carlos Santana to Aretha Franklin. Her future seemed bright — but, instead, she walked away, pursuing a business degree and disconnecting herself from the world she loved.

On December 13, 2017, many of her former colleagues finally found out why. That’s when The New York Times published a piece in which she and two other women, journalist Toni Sallie and singer Tina Baker, accused Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons — one of the masterminds of rap’s commercial ascendance — of rape. Dixon’s incident took place in 1995 when she worked for Simmons, who she says invited her over to his place to hear a hot new demo. Always on the hunt for fresh musical voices, Dixon was intrigued, only to be sexually assaulted by her boss. (Simmons alleges it never happened.)

Dixon had never spoken publicly about her experience until the Times piece, but simultaneously, she was participating in a documentary by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have consistently chronicled sexual assault in different workplaces. Their 2012 film The Invisible War examined the culture of silence in the U.S. military, while 2015’s The Hunting Ground focused on the prevalence of assault cases on college campuses. (Separately, Dick made 2005’s Twist of Fate, about Ohio firefighter Tony Comes, who claims he was sexually assaulted as a teen by his Catholic priest.) Because of the success of their previous films, Dick and Ziering have been approached by many assault survivors, but when they met Dixon, they were moved by her ability to articulate her trauma with a specificity they’d rarely encountered.       

“We’ve been in this field for many, many years and read so much,” Dick says by phone. “When we were doing the interviews [with Dixon], there were a dozen times when I would look at somebody on the crew and just go, ‘Wow, that is incredibly well-said.’” Chiming in on a separate line, Ziering adds, “What always struck me is that she still has no understanding or knowledge of her own power and her own remarkableness. She can take an experience, metabolize it and reconstitute it in a way that’s incredible. She can speak in a concise, effective manner [about her] experience and articulate it in a way that’s new, novel, profound and true. I’ve just never seen that.”

This matters because in Dick and Ziering’s moving new documentary, On the Record, we’re taken inside Dixon’s thought process of going public with her accusations. (In the film, she also accuses Arista head L.A. Reid of stalling her career because she refused his sexual advances.) Before the movie premiered at Sundance, it was commonly just known as “the Russell Simmons documentary” because he was a powerful man accused of horrible crimes, but anyone who watches On the Record will see that Dick and Ziering have taken pains to assure that this is a survivor’s story, following Dixon as she finally decides to speak out and then braces for the repercussions. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that Simmons is such a peripheral figure — their movie is about bearing witness for Dixon, as well as writer Sil Lai Abrams and hip-hop musician Sheri Sher, who also tell their stories. Through Dixon, we understand the complex emotions that go into such a difficult decision — and also what she lost when Simmons raped her. (Again, Simmons alleges he didn’t do it.)

Like Dick and Ziering’s previous films, On the Record asks its audience to hear harrowing details about sexual assault. But the documentary also explores how #MeToo has been a far trickier proposition for Black women, who feel conflicted about accusing Black men of rape when they know how white America often treats people of color. We disproportionately imprison Black men already — by speaking out about sexual assault, are these women unwittingly perpetuating bigoted cultural stereotypes? In addition, Dixon feels torn because of her passion for hip hop, a tool for political change but also filled with its fair share of misogyny. Accusing Simmons meant bringing attention to rap’s less-savory qualities, which didn’t bring Dixon any joy. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” she says, saddened.

Last week, I spoke with Dick and Ziering about On the Record and how they’ve coped with telling these difficult stories now for three straight films. We also discussed the pressure they felt as white artists digging into a subject that’s focused on Black experiences, and why Ziering hates journalists’ double standard when reporting on sexual assault. And we also talked about how they reconcile the movies that they make with Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden.

Because of The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, I can imagine survivors reach out to you to tell their stories, knowing that you’ll do them justice. But before working with Drew Dixon, did any part of you think, “I’m not sure I want to put myself through something this traumatic again”?
Ziering: A hundred percent. I mean, you don’t come out the same person [after making a film like this]. Secondary PTSD is very real — it’s not something you take on easily or lightly. But at the same time, we find ourselves in this strange place because we’ve done it [before] with such great success that people respond and are grateful for our efforts. [Those previous films] sort of helped move the needle in terms of people feeling informed and enlightened, and seeing things in a different way. We feel a unique responsibility and obligation to continue to address it. It’s not easy, but the emotional difficulty makes us realize more and more the importance [of these films]: “If it’s difficult for us, then, oh my god, how difficult is it for the people going through this?” Who are we to decline our obligation and responsibility to do our part?

Dick: Then there’s an additional element to it, which is that each time we make these films, we learn so much from our interview subjects, and we just gain an incredible depth of knowledge that we can bring to the next film. So it puts us in a position to look at the next film around this subject matter with a greater range of understanding. I think that actually helps the films themselves.

Obviously, each survivor’s story is different, but did making those earlier films help you realize certain mistakes you’ve made in the past? Can you learn from those movies in terms of how to better tell Dixon’s story?
Ziering: It’s more that we had already explored certain arenas in our other films, so that gave us the opportunity to go even deeper and have a more nuanced and complicated discussion. We were in the sexual-assault space before it was trending, and I hope, in part, that our films helped usher in that shift. So, being pioneers in that way — at least in the cinematic field — our objective in those films was really just to show the importance and need, with documentation, statistics and studies, to believe women. It was pretty much, “Here are these stories, and here’s the frequency with which they happen, and here’s the statistical data to support that these aren’t just one-off anecdotes but part of a system that supports these crimes going unpunished.” That was the baseline objective of our earlier films. Then, having established that, what we got to do with this film was go into a much more sophisticated analysis of the issue.

At the Sundance premiere, a Black woman in the audience asked during the Q&A why no Black filmmakers took on this story — why it fell to two white filmmakers to tell it. How did you wrestle with that question while making On the Record?
Ziering: It was absolutely front and center. We didn’t set out to make the film. We’re extremely organic filmmakers in that the stories find us. I mean, we know the territory we’re working in, but then you start interviewing people, and you find yourself going in a different direction.

The genesis of this film was that we just were hearing stories. Post-#MeToo, our cell phones exploded. People were saying, “Oh my god, you guys do these amazing films, I’d love to talk to you.” And so we started just lining up a lot of interviews, because we both felt that we should seize the moment. It was so hard to get people to go on camera for our last two films, and now people are feeling safe and protected, or inspired, to finally come forward. So we decided, “Okay, that’s part of the responsibility. Here we go, let’s just do this and see what happens.”

Drew was just one of over a hundred interviews that we did in a very short span of time. During that [initial] interview, I looked around and there were three crew members that were sobbing. Drew was so fascinating and did open up so many windows of insight that were so well-articulated in a tour-de-force way that I called Kirby and said, “This could be a film. She’s going on this really interesting journey right now, and maybe we should see if she trusts us to follow that.” 

When we first interviewed her, she was like, “I’m not going to sign a release because I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if I’m going public. I don’t know what I even want to do. But I just feel like talking.” But when we started following her story, we realized, “Oh, we should not be making this film without partners who are not white.” We were lucky enough to have partnered with Oprah Winfrey and [her company] Harpo about a year ago, and they helped us craft it. So it was very much a collaborative effort. We never would’ve undertaken this film without that.

Dick: We just followed the insights of Drew, of Sil Lai, of Sheri and of the other women in the film — [experts like] Dr. [Joan] Morgan, Kierna Mayo and Dr. [Kimberlé] Crenshaw. Obviously, they’ve been experiencing this and working in this arena for decades. It was really an ongoing dialogue over a year and a half around these issues, because they were really taking us into these issues. It’s their voices and their insight that you see and hear in the film.

Before Sundance, most anybody knew about the film was “Oh, it’s the Russell Simmons documentary” — meaning, it’s that film about Russell Simmons, sexual abuser. It speaks to the problem our society has, which is that we make these stories about the abuser, not the survivors. On the Record is very much about survivors, but how have you navigated that shorthand that your film is “the Russell Simmons documentary”?
Dick: I think you’re right — they think that [it’s about Simmons before they see the film]. But after they come out, I think they think about it in a completely different way. Obviously, Russell Simmons is an extremely well-known, very accomplished person, and so people are going to reference it that way. But, really, this is a film about the survivors, the survivor experience and the survivor perspective. One of the surprises of the film, actually, is [viewers] think they’re going to see a film about Russell Simmons and the facts around the case, and in fact what they see is something that’s very internal, very complex, very moving, and something that really hasn’t been shown, certainly in documentary form and to white audiences.

‘On the Record’ Shifts the #MeToo Spotlight From the Abusers to the Survivors

But from the start, did you know this would be Drew Dixon’s story? Or did that come about during the editing?
Dick: We knew from very early on that Drew was going to be foregrounded, along with Sil Lai and Sheri. This was going to be a film about [Drew’s] experience, her arc. I mean, one of the things that I think is really most powerful in this is watching someone decide whether to come forward. That’s something that I don’t think audiences have really ever seen, and that can be a very excruciating experience for [survivors]. It’s certainly very complex, very emotional. There’s a lot of internal questioning of whether they should come forward. And sometimes it goes on over years and years. And so, to see this, I think, is a revelatory experience.

Of course, it goes beyond that, too, which is what happens immediately after you [speak out], because in some ways the world changes. You are still you, but now you’re looked at in a completely different light, and you have to interact with the public about something that you’d spent oftentimes decades keeping extremely private. We saw from the very beginning that this was a unique opportunity to explore this arena with a really unique subject. You’re not only seeing her experiences, but she has incredible insight and is able to articulate those insights.

Ziering: The objective for us — not only in this film, but even in our past films — has never been to focus on the predators. We’re interested in the whole ecosystem that supports and allows these crimes to happen with impunity for so long. It’s always a greater cultural question, because if you just expunge one predator, you really haven’t addressed the issue. Then you’ve just taken care of one person — another predator’s going to spring up, and the same system will protect him or her, and it’s just going to be rinse, repeat. The assailant [in On the Record] is a very famous person, but it really could be anyone. Our objective isn’t to analyze or take him down but to use the crimes he committed as exemplary of a bigger-picture issue that women of color face daily in America.

One of the reports pre-Sundance was that Winfrey ultimately backed away from executive producing On the Record because she had issues with how hip hop was depicted in the film. I think the documentary treats the music fairly, but how did you strike that balance between condemning its misogyny but not necessarily blaming it for the behavior of men like Simmons?
Dick: Obviously, there is misogyny in the hip-hop world — there’s misogyny in the music — but there’s misogyny in the entire music world and in society at large. We didn’t want to single out hip hop, specifically, without setting up the wider context. We wanted to establish that as part of the landscape of the world that Drew was in, but not spend a lot of time with that. It was just something that we wanted to address because it was part of [her] world.

Ziering: Yeah, misogyny isn’t unique to hip hop. Hip hop is a reflection of our culture, just like all of our arts are. And our culture’s incredibly misogynistic.

Dixon mentions that it bothers her to be thought of as a traitor to her race by calling out Simmons. On the Record really digs into this idea that, for Black women, it’s even tougher to talk about their abuse because American society has been so punitive to Black men. Survivors can feel like they’re helping to perpetuate systemic racism.
Ziering: One of the big points of the film is just how complicated it is. We do have this history and legacy of America wrongly accusing Black men of crimes they never committed — Black men as rapists — that’s fueled the murder of Black men in our country. So we wanted to talk about what the burden is when you live in that world, and you have that history, and how much harder it is for you to come forward if your assailant is Black. [Black female survivors] know that when they do, there’s the risk that they’re putting their own sons and brothers and fathers at greater danger — they know that there’s a risk that they’re fueling the culture’s racism at large. Who wants to do that? 

They’re in this incredible double bind always. And [even] if their assailant’s white, they’re in a double bind because they’re Black women and their voices don’t count as much and their bodies aren’t protected as much — they’re viewed as hypersexual because of a legacy of racist tropes. It’s a quagmire for Black women.

In the film, she also talks about the “lessons” she learned from how badly the media treated Anita Hill and Desiree Washington when they accused, respectively, Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson. Basically, she decided she wouldn’t be believed. Joe Biden was prominently featured in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings — and he’s now been accused of sexual assault by Tara Reade. How do you feel about those accusations?
Ziering: I want to take the Biden example as instructive. In a patriarchal society, which has a history of rape and misogyny, it’s not an accident that men in power, more often than not, have these allegations raised about them. So we can look at this that way, just sort of systemically. As our films show, people in power often can exploit more vulnerable people and get away with it — exploit them in all sorts of different ways, primarily sexual assault and sexual harassment. We’re often going to see people that rise to positions of power have these allegations or accusations put against them. 

I don’t think that that should then, because of anyone’s partisan beliefs, diminish or undermine all the work we’ve done [around the importance that] people should be believed. I still think it’s paramount that you should believe women, and it shouldn’t be an either/or. You can hold your public people accountable, and hope they’ll take responsibility, and see it as progress that we’re having to grapple with this in a way that we didn’t before. When the allegations came out about Bill Clinton, people excoriated Gennifer Flowers and Juanita Broaddrick. At least now, with Tara Reade, there’s definite concern and reflection. There’s still that sort of knee-jerk misogyny, but it’s a little more tempered, and that’s progress. It’s not a lot of progress, but it’s a categorical difference.

Dixon talks about her frustration that the woman is the one who has to voice the accusation and describe what happened to her — the man just gets to deny it. The crime sticks to the woman, not the perpetrator.
Ziering: The thing that’s always driven me crazy is why, in our press, do we say, “Victim alleges,” and then you can say, “Trump denies”? Why don’t you say, “Trump alleges he didn’t do it”? I mean, our whole way of framing and reporting on these things is insanely biased: You can flat-out deny it, but a person can only continually allege. What’s that double standard? No one was there to prove he didn’t do it, so why don’t we get the sort of quote marks around his reputation?

That’s my pet peeve. If you’re going to temper it and go, “Okay, legally and journalistically, we can’t really say, ‘She said it,’” then put it around him, too. You don’t have any corroboration for his denial. Then why doesn’t the press go, “Trump alleges he didn’t do it”? Why isn’t it, “Biden alleges it never happened”? I think there’s a problem there.

Amy, how do you conduct your on-camera interviews? How do you make someone like Dixon comfortable to open up about what happened to her?
Ziering: It’s something I’ve done for all our films, starting with Invisible War. Kirby and I are very mindful of keeping it a very small, tight crew, as few people in the room as possible. We’re pretty lean anyway, but we’re incredibly lean for these interviews. I sit the person down, and I always say, “Listen, I don’t want to add to your burden in any way. You’ve been through enough. This is a safe space. If I ask you any question and you don’t want to answer, that’s 100 percent fine. If you say something, and then you’re like, ‘I feel really exposed, uncomfortable, vulnerable,’ totally fine. If you say, ‘I need to stop and take a break,’ totally fine. If you want us to just leave at any point, totally fine.” I say, “We are here as guests. We are here as witnesses. I don’t want to go to bed tonight thinking I in any way increased your burden.”

I know from having done this with many, many women who’ve actually talked to other reporters that they’ve always said that no other person has ever [said] that — and that it really made a difference that I stuck by it. I mean, there have been interviews where we’ve completely stopped. There have been interviews where we’ve left — it was just too much for the person. We walk the walk, and I think that’s extremely helpful. I also look at the space where we’re filming, and I try to find a space that’s not so open — a room that feels comfortable and inviting and you’re in control of. That’s important. I don’t try to do these interviews in big loft spaces, with a lot of doors open, etc. That just psychologically helps people when they talk about these kinds of things.

Dick: I’ve worked with Amy for many, many years, and I just want to say she is an incredible interviewer. She was talking about how she sets up these safe spaces so the conversations become very intimate and personal, and I do think the subjects are able to open up in ways that I’ve never seen any other interviewer accomplish. And, at the same time, Amy is also able to engage in these very analytical discussions with people like Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. She brings both those qualities, both those skills, to each interview.

Ziering: [sheepish] I don’t know…

Dick: I do. I think so.

Ziering: Well, thank you. All I’ll say is that I do get notes from people that I’ve interviewed in the past. This woman sent me an email after Hunting Ground came out, and she was a young Harvard student: “Amy, I don’t even know if you remember me, but you interviewed me for Hunting Ground, and I didn’t end up in the film, but I just saw the film. I want to tell you that my interview with you really transformed my life. I never felt safe. I had never spoken before. And you held that space, and you believed me. And it made such a difference, and thank you.”

We do get that a lot. When people ask us about what we hope [On the Record] accomplishes… When the films come out, we get letters from survivors, like, “This film made me feel not alone, and it made me feel heard, and finally I saw someone who had the courage to speak, and it helped me move forward and work through my own trauma.” So that, I think, is very powerful. Power is sort of bearing witness in a real, respectful, kind, empathic way. It’s life-changing for people.

We learn from On the Record’s survivors that Simmons had a pattern: He’d trick his victims into coming to his place so they could listen to a demo. I was curious: Do these women ever hurt more when they discover that he didn’t even think of them as special or unique?
Ziering: One thing we found — and we talked about it in our other films — is that it’s typically not a one-off crime. Predators are usually serial predators. The myth of “Oh, it just was a mistake,” or a hookup, or a date gone bad — it’s a bad rape myth that our culture has. Serial predators are protected by rape myths like that, which just [results in] not believing the woman: “Oh, it’s just a misunderstanding.” No, these are, by and large, premeditated crimes — they’re committed over and over again.

The thing that hurts or astonishes women when they find out that it wasn’t just them is that they didn’t seek out and protect other women. [Screenwriter] Jenny Lumet [who also accused Simmons of sexual assault] hauntingly talked about that in the film. That, I found, is the most prevalent thing that hurts them. It’s not that they weren’t special — it’s that, “Oh my god, this didn’t just happen to me. He was doing it to other people. I just didn’t speak up or see the importance of speaking up — could it have been stopped?”

Dick: I think when people realize that they were entrapped by an M.O. and that this happened to other people, [it can be] a positive experience to realize that there are other survivors of a perpetrator — and those other survivors were entrapped by that same M.O. Oftentimes, survivors think that they did something really stupid, and there’s this tendency to blame themselves, and that’s one of the ways that they do. But when they realize that, no, this is a very skilled perpetrator who has done this again and again and knows how to do it, they stop blaming themself, at least to some extent, for that reason.

Obviously, with that secondary PTSD you mentioned earlier, it doesn’t compare to what your subjects experience. But when you finish one of these films, are you able to release that trauma for yourselves? Do you carry it around with you?
Ziering: These stories don’t ever leave you. You finish the film, but you’re worried about the press response — you’re worried about how [your subjects] are faring. You just feel responsible in different ways. And you’re still triggered. You’re triggered by other press that comes out. What’s instructive about PTSD is you don’t control it, and it’s not on your timeline. It shifts, I would say. It’s not the same level of intensity, but it’s not gone.

The first time I’d ever done anything like this was Invisible War, and I was very wide-eyed and naïve — and gung-ho and clueless, honestly. “I can handle anything!” And I remember, after that [movie had come out], for a good year or two, I would be just walking down the street and there’d be tears coming down my face. And I wouldn’t know that I was crying. I thought, “Wow, okay, that’s strange. Obviously, my body, my mind, is working through something that I don’t even…”

And that’s what’s instructive for me. I have [no personal] experience of sexual assault. This isn’t coming from a personal place of trauma. And yet, I’m so turned upside-down and reconfigured and have secondary PTSD from that. If I am, oh my god, what is it like for people who are really experiencing it — and for their loved ones, that whole domino effect? For me, that revelation is “We really need to do something about this because, clearly, our whole landscape could look entirely different if we just addressed this issue.”

On the Record is now finished. Do you stay in touch with your subjects? Do you feel it’s important to reach out to see how they’re doing once the movie is over and out in the world?
Ziering: We definitely stay in close touch through the release with everybody, just uniformly, to make sure they’re doing okay. Afterwards, it just happens super-organically. I never know who’s going to stay in touch with me — it’s up to them. It’s a professional relationship, but some people are incredibly emotionally connected to me — and some people that I had a very close relationship with during the making aren’t. Whatever happens is fine. I’ve found it’s surprising and unpredictable. It’s not necessarily the main character in the film — it might be even someone who was in a montage for a short amount of time.  

But my thing is that it’s never [my place] to initiate. It’s them — it’s their journey. I just dropped into their life in a very strange way, so if they want to stay in touch, they initiate. But I never know who it’s going to be, or for how long, and in what way.