Alexia Norton Jones, one of the alleged victims of Russell Simmons who appears in “On the Record,” a new documentary about sexual misconduct from the music mogul, couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
A few days ago, Jones watched a video of Oprah Winfrey doing an interview with her friend Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.” In the clip, Winfrey, who said she had “lived #MeToo” as a victim of child abuse, was explaining why she had removed her name as an executive producer of the Simmons documentary, just days before the movie directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering was set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. As Winfrey talked about the importance of accuracy — “I just care about getting it right,” she said — she claimed that she had to cut ties with the film because the directors hadn’t listened to her notes. Although Simmons had pressured Winfrey to not release the movie, she said that hadn’t factored into her decision.
Winfrey pointed to how Norton Jones had recently completed an interview with CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller, talking about being allegedly raped by Simmons in November 1990. (Although more than a dozen women have accused Simmons of sexual misconduct and abuse, he’s denied any wrongdoing. Norton Jones first told her story to Variety in July 2018.)
Among the changes Winfrey wanted, she said, were that she didn’t feel like the documentary spent enough time detailing Norton Jones’ alleged attack. But as Winfrey referenced the story on TV, she kept calling Norton Jones, who is the granddaughter of the late book publisher W.W. Norton, by the wrong name, identifying her as “Alexia Norton Strong” on two occasions.
“We are so sorry that happened, it was not intentional,” said a representative for Winfrey.
Norton Jones couldn’t understand how Oprah could have gotten this piece of information wrong, along with everything else that’s happened in the last few days. Since Winfrey dropped the film on Jan. 10, it also lost its distributor Apple TV Plus, which has an overall deal with the former TV talk host. Meanwhile, Rosanna Arquette, Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano and dozens of others released a public statement supporting the women who appear in “On the Record.”
While the directors will be attending the film’s premiere in Sundance on Jan. 25 with some of the alleged victims, and as they seek new distribution, Norton Jones won’t be making the trip. She says it is her impression that by no longer having backing from Apple, the filmmakers couldn’t afford to send her. A representative from the movie declined to comment on the film’s publicity plans.
In an interview with Variety, Norton Jones spoke about what she’s gone through since Winfrey distanced herself from the documentary.
Alexia Norton Jones: I’m online the other day, and I see a clip on my Twitter account. I see Oprah Winfrey speaking to Gayle King about an interview I’d done with Michelle Miller, which was really terrific. And so, here’s Oprah Winfrey who is in many ways the second most powerful black woman in America after Michelle Obama. She’s talking about the documentary and she’s giving it shade. And this is after she’s already stepped away from the documentary.
Then here it is, casually. I have this other name [Alexia Norton Strong] on TV, spoken by Oprah Winfrey. What was so painful about it is that, what sexual violence is, it is about erasing you. It is about saying you don’t matter. Right in that moment, Oprah is sharing her own story, about what happened to her. She then inserts her pain into our experience about why she’s stepping away. And at the same time, I don’t have a name.
She should know better. All respect to Gayle King, who had also introduced that segment with Michelle Miller days earlier. Everybody’s got an earpiece. Somebody could have corrected her. It reminds me of when you’re trying to seek help for these things, you’re silenced again. It’s not like I’m important to Oprah or Gayle, but Oprah was the executive producer of the project. This is what bothered me. She didn’t step into the project at the end.
The whole thing, it’s been very destabilizing. You don’t want to hear your name on a national news story in the morning said incorrectly, because your name is who you are.
I was late to be interviewed for the Russell Simmons documentary. Nobody could find me. When I got in front of the camera, Amy Ziering didn’t really know anything about me because it happened so last minute. I’ve come in at the very end of the film. It’s like they had to fit me into a film that has already been made.
After I finished shooting, as we sat down to lunch, I turned to Amy and said, “I’m biracial, and it breaks my heart. White people don’t need to care about black people.”
And Amy said, “No Alexia, that’s not true. We are all in this together.”
I was really moved by that. I’ve said this for a long time, I had no protectors. And I have to give props to these filmmakers because they made an extraordinary film and a historic film. It’s not an attack on Russell. It tells a story of how black women love black men and how we’ve always protected them and how our role has been to be the nurturer. And how when a black man is shot and he’s unarmed, pieces of us die. We are broken by that.
This is not about taking down Russell Simmons. I saw the movie about a week ago, and I’m telling you, it’s profound.
These are very complex issues. Forgive me for crying, but in physically meeting these women and then speaking to them on the phone, there’s a part of me that feels like I got off easy. To hear that Russell could have tackled somebody. To hear the pain and anguish, to hear that Sil Lai Abrams tried to take her life. To meet Sherri Hines, she was this vivid shining star. There have been just moments where I have wept. And I thought, “What is this collateral damage?”
It’s like these buildings just crashed, and I don’t think Russell is even aware of what he’s done. Actually, there was one moment after I made the documentary when I just went into my own closet and I was just sobbing so much, because I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings, because I didn’t know there was anybody else. If you think it’s just you, somehow you feel like you can deal with it — that you can somehow forgive and soldier on. But when you see all the pain and suffering from all these people, we could have drowned if it was not for our resilience and resolve as silence breakers to speak up.
When I learned that Oprah had pulled out of the documentary, I don’t even know what kind of words to put on that. I was in shock. It wasn’t that I wasn’t believed. I felt like she built her brand on her story of being abused. And for two decades, people came on her talk show and told their stories of abuse.
When she walked away from us as women of color, it was painful because she was abandoning us. I had always felt a bond with Oprah. This has always been the most confusing, isolating, painful part of this whole documentary. A few weeks ago, I’m getting messages, “Oprah pulled out.” And I’m like, “What happened?” After Oprah pulled out, everybody’s pulled away from everybody. So now my only communication is with the filmmakers. By the way, the people who have been steadfast and remarkable during this whole process are Time’s Up, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and Ann Walker Marchant, a publicist who specializes in crisis communications.
When I had been speaking to one of the producers, I thought I was going to Sundance. That’s what I’d been told all along. But after Oprah and Apple dropped out, what was presented to me was they only had the resources to send the principals. I wanted to come to Sundance and see my story retold. I’m guessing because these are independent filmmakers, where are the resources going to be?
So now I’m left alone. I’m left alone in my home with a support system of a couple people on Twitter who have found me and have been astonishingly kind and supportive. But it is very isolating. When you are assaulted, when violence has happened to you and you are sexually violated and raped, whether you’re in the film for two hours or 25 seconds, you are not less raped than anybody else. That’s not how rape works.
I do feel like Oprah hurt us. And she’s too smart a woman not to have known. I just don’t understand where her loyalties were to begin with. She shouldn’t have ever signed up on the project if she couldn’t get to the finish line.
This conversations has been edited for clarity.