Last year’s Sundance was a watershed edition in that it debuted two documentaries that revealed allegations of sexual abuse against two powerful men: Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein. Both films, Leaving Neverland and Untouchable, were sobering and haunting, unmasking these individuals’ monstrous behavior. But only in retrospect do I realize that the documentaries spent a lot of time grappling with the awfulness of the assaulters. It’s not that they didn’t pay ample attention to the survivors, giving them a platform to tell their shocking stories. But often, those stories made me think about Jackson and Weinstein. And maybe I shouldn’t have.
This Sundance has its own #MeToo films, but the one that’s gotten the must attention (even before the festival) was On the Record, which details sexual assault allegations against Russell Simmons, who’s accurately described by one person in the documentary as the godfather of hip-hop. For all the controversy surrounding On the Record — principally, Oprah Winfrey’s decision to pull her name from the project — what’s most apparent about the film is that Simmons is left as an abstraction, a nondescript abusive man. And I think that’s exactly what directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering intended.
On the Record is, first and foremost, about the survivors and how they’ve coped — specifically Drew Dixon, a former star record executive whose career was destroyed due to her time with Simmons and, later, another record mogul, L.A. Reid. It’s not a criticism of those earlier documentaries to suggest that On the Record shows how our society is evolving on #MeToo. This isn’t a movie about bad men — it’s about the reality of being a survivor.
Dixon makes for a compelling protagonist. The daughter of politically-minded parents — her mother, Sharon Pratt, was mayor of Washington, D.C. — she is portrayed by friends and former colleagues in On the Record as a bright light who showed incredible promise from her earliest days in the music business. She had excellent taste, especially when it came to hip-hop. She was friends with Biggie, and when she got a chance to put together a soundtrack album for The Show, a 1995 film that celebrated the breadth and creativity of rap music, she was instrumental in handpicking the tracks, leading to the record being a smash. Drew Dixon should have been an industry success story.
Instead, as anyone who read her 2017 interview in The New York Times knows, she had to fend off the advances of Simmons, her boss, who she claims assaulted her. Wanting to free herself of the situation at Def Jam, Simmons’ label, she jumped to Arista, where she worked for legendary label owner Clive Davis. But when Davis stepped aside and Reid took over, she again found herself having to square off with her superior, who allegedly wanted sex from her and little else. Because she refused, he retaliated by refusing to sign artists she recommended, like Kanye West and John Legend.
If you’ve seen Leaving Neverland, Untouchable or other such documentaries, Dixon’s stories of being assaulted are horrifying but not entirely unfamiliar. Bad men have similar habits, which is even truer when one of Simmons’ other alleged victims tells the filmmakers nearly the exact same anecdote of being assaulted as what happened to Dixon. How many times did Simmons try the same routine on different women?
These anecdotes are crucial, of course, because we need to understand how sexual assault occurs and what it does to those assaulted. But while Dick and Ziering let these women speak about their attacks, On the Record is much more concerned with the aftermath, the recovery and the process of trying to move on. My hunch is that, for anyone who’s suffered sexual assault, On the Record might speak to their own circumstance. The movie makes clear that no one is ever “healed,” per se, after experiencing sexual violence. (As Dixon puts it chillingly at one point, her body is still a crime scene, even though the crime happened 25 years ago.) Dick and Ziering spend little time pondering Simmons, his motivations or his character because they’re far more concerned with how Dixon finally decides to go public with what happened to her.
One of the reasons Winfrey reportedly walked away from the film was that she was uncomfortable with On the Record’s portrayal of hip-hop, an art form that can demonize, marginalize and objectify women. Having seen On the Record, and being a rap fan since the mid-1980s, I think Dick and Ziering fairly critique hip-hop’s misogyny — as well as include Dixon admitting that because she loved rap so much growing up, respecting its political outspokenness and celebration of black culture, she chose to overlook its less-savory qualities. (And the documentary makes clear that rap was hardly the first music genre to treat women as sexual playthings or second-class citizens.)
But what matters in On the Record’s exploration of hip-hop culture is that it indicates that Dick and Ziering don’t just have their sights set on Simmons. Rather, they’re asking us to think about the totality of how women are treated in our society, in every walk of life, but especially how women of color are disrespected and disbelieved, even in the #MeToo era. Dixon speaks passionately about what kept her from speaking out earlier: Anita Hill (who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment) and Desiree Washington (who claimed Mike Tyson raped her). She saw how badly society treated those women — why should she want to face the same hell?
Previous #MeToo documentaries wanted us to understand the psychology of abusive powerful men so that we could recognize the symptoms. Well, you could make the argument that, now that those films exist, we no longer need to be educated about monsters’ pathology. Frankly, I don’t much care why Simmons did what he did — let him rot in hell as far as I’m concerned. Instead, On the Record wants to educate us about survival and courage. We watch Dixon make the choice to talk to the Times. We see her wrestle with her decision after she’s made it, unsure what the fallout will be. And we see her meet with other survivors, all of them realizing they weren’t alone in being assaulted by Simmons. It’s all deeply moving.
As someone who wants to be an ally, I often wonder what I can do. The answer is often to be supportive and be a good listener — to be there for the person and not feel like you need to “fix” their trauma. This is why On the Record is so valuable. Like last year’s Sundance #MeToo documentaries, it asks us to bear witness. But it also says that the particulars of the assaulter don’t matter — the survivor should be our only concern.