‘On the Record’ Offers a Unique Perspective on #MeToo Documentaries by Focusing on the Victim
Director-producer team Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick‘s “On the Record” is the beginning of a discussion, and while #MeToo talks are already ongoing, this is a new conversation which needs to be heard. Twenty women allege they were assaulted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Most of the #MeToo documentaries produced since the beginning of the movement focus on the predator. The focus of “On the Record” is Drew Dixon, a black woman who was pioneering a career at the beginning of a groundbreaking industry. To Dixon, breaking her silence meant breaking a code of solidarity.
“I didn’t want to take the culture down,” Dixon says in the documentary. “I loved the culture.” The documentary presents a short history of the hip-hop scene of the ’80s and early ’90s. Artists spoke blunt truths, self-promoted their sexual talents and maintained bad-boy street cred. In the song “Power to the People,” John Lennon asks the revolutionaries in his audience how they treat their women at home. The documentary makes the same distinction in the hip-hop community. The artists were making radical political commentary but they were building it on a foundation of perpetuation. “Bitch” and “ho” are just new words for old racial stereotypes. Hip-hop isn’t the only genre guilty of misogyny. The documentary offers examples from Beatles, Tom Jones, the Rolling Stones, and the Misfits.
Dixon grew up a big music fan in Washington, D.C. She got the idea of mixing music and activism when she was canvassing door-to-door while her mother was running for mayor. Drew was studying at Stanford when she assembled the musical guests for the party celebrating her mother’s win. She moved to New York, where she became tight with Christopher Wallace, Brooklyn’s own Notorious B.I.G. “Biggie had my back,” Dixon says in the documentary.
Dixon was 24 when she went to work at Def Jam in the early ’90s. While putting together the soundtrack for the 1995 documentary “The Show,” she had the vision to pair Method Man with Mary J. Blige on the Sean Combs-produced song “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” The duet won a Grammy and Dixon went from assistant to A&R director in less than five years. She worked closely with the “godfather of hip-hop,” who she idolized but who grew increasingly problematic. Dixon says Simmons would come into her office with his penis exposed, and she had to continually stop his aggressive advances. “I thought he was, like, this tragic ADD puppy dog who I had to keep retraining,” Dixon says. “Music comes with a certain sense of promiscuity,” says former A&R executive Miguel Mojica, “whether you’re the artist or you’re the guy making the artist.” It doesn’t matter how high a woman gets in the company, she is never actually safe.
Dixon tells the filmmakers that in 1995 Simmons lured her up to his apartment after they had been partying at Manhattan’s Bowery Bar. She had been waiting for him to leave the bar first, to avoid an unwanted encounter, but Simmons was waiting for her — at first calling Dixon a company car, and then convincing her to come to his apartment with the promise of a great demo. Once at his apartment, she tells him she will take the demo home. He asks to get the CD from his bedroom. By the time she figures out how to work the complicated sound system, Simmons is in the room wearing nothing but a condom. “He just grabbed me,” Dixon recounts. “He wrestled me to the bed, and I’m fighting and he’s telling me to stop fighting in a very cold, menacing, detached voice that I’d never heard from him before.” She makes an immediate and intimate connection with the audience. The pain is audible in her voice. She is direct and vulnerable as the camera catches her face, with eyes downcast, in lingering shots. Dixon says she blacked out after seeing handcuffs hanging from the canopy, something experts say is consistent with sexual assault survivors. She next remembers being naked with Simmons in his bathtub making plans for future hookups. “When I got home, I got in the shower with all my clothes on,” Dixon says. “I was nothing in that moment.”
Dixon left her “dream job” at Def Jam to work for Clive Davis at Arista, where she worked with artists including Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill and Santana. When L.A. Reid took over as head of the label, Dixon claims he made frequent, unwanted advances that led to “more and more professional consequences.” She says Reid passed on Kanye West and John Legend because she wouldn’t sleep with him. Following sexual harassment claims by a female employee, Reid stepped down as CEO and chairman of Epic Records in 2017. In a statement shown on screen, Reid calls the allegations “unfounded, not true, and represent a complete misrepresentation and fabrication of any facts or events alleged therein as having occurred.”
“On the Record” is one in a line of major documentary to emerge since the beginnings of the #MeToo movement. “Leaving Neverland” explored allegations against Michael Jackson, ” Untouchable” laid out the case against Harvey Weinstein, and “Surviving R. Kelly” followed ongoing claims which have been made against Kelly for years. But while they focus on the people who commit the acts, “On the Record” centers on the alleged victim. While she is one of several people featured in the documentary, Dixon presents the face of undue process. It comes after a hard decision, considering the fates of previous victims, like former pageant queen Desiree Washington, who was herself blamed for inciting Mike Tyson, or Anita Hill who saw the man she accused get a seat on the Supreme Court.
The documentary was shot as the #MeToo movement grew into an effective means to enact criminal justice. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the women who have come forward in Hollywood have been white women,” journalist and radio producer Bim Adewunmi says at the beginning of the film. The filmmakers speak with experts like Michele Wallace and Kimberlé Crenshaw about specific problems outside that circle. “A lot of black women felt disconnected from #MeToo initially,” activist Tarana Burke says in “On the Record.” “They felt like ‘that’s great that that sister is out there, and we support her as an individual but this movement is not for us.’”
While Dixon says she “felt so grateful that those women were being believed,” in the Weinstein reports, she says she felt enormous pressure not to go on the record until screenwriter Jenny Lumet came forward in a 2017 article in the Hollywood Reporter. The daughter of legendary director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of iconic singer Lena Horne alleged Simmons “sexually violated” her in 1991. So, Dixon agrees to speak with Joe Coscarelli of the New York Times, and undergoes a vetting process to determine if she is believable. She came forward, alongside two other women, resulting in a 3,600-word story published on Dec. 13, 2017.
The documentary hears a similar story from Sheri Sher, a member of the first all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies. Fashion model and activist Sil Lai Abrams also says Simmons approached her in his bedroom wearing a condom. Abrams says it led her to attempt suicide. The documentary hears similar stories from Alexia Norton Jones, Kelly Cutrone, Tina Baker, and an anonymous woman cast in shadow. Their stories build like testimony, forcing the audience to bear witness. Simmons was first publicly accused of sexual misconduct in November 2017. Former model Keri Claussen Khalighi told the Los Angeles Times that he made advances without her consent in 1991. Simmons said their encounters “occurred with her full consent and participation,” and repeatedly denied all accusations of sexual violence.
The women in the film all suffered personal and professional fallout after the alleged attacks, and while “On the Record” ends on an upbeat note, it is a lasting reminder that patriarchal protection is endemic in every industry. Oprah Winfrey, who served as an executive producer, pulled out of the film just before it opened at Sundance. While Winfrey said she “unequivocally believes and supports the women,” she felt filmmakers Ziering and Dick, who investigated sexual assault in the military and on college campuses in their documentaries “The Hunting Ground” and “The Invisible War,” fell short of capturing the unique struggles of the women. “In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision,” said Winfrey.
While it may be imperfect, “On the Record” is a unique entry in #MeToo investigative journalism. It is emotionally effective and expansive without losing its center. Composer Terence Blanchard’s score complements the darkening arc with subtlety, giving soundtrack to a new voice in an ongoing dialogue, one that should spur much-needed conversation.
“On the Record” premieres on May 27 on HBO Max.