‘On the Record’: Film Review

Spotlighting accusations of sexual harassment and rape against the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have made a documentary that's powerful, traumatic, and convincing.

On the Record
Courtesy Sundance Film Festival

On the Record,” a documentary that presents the former music executive Drew Dixon’s accusations of sexual harassment and rape against the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (it includes several other Simmons accusers as well), is the fourth major documentary of the #MeToo era to offer an incendiary indictment of men who have used their power within the entertainment industry to commit and cover up patterns of abusive behavior. Like “Leaving Neverland” and “Untouchable,” the documentaries about Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein that premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and like the seismic Lifetime series “Surviving R. Kelly,” “On the Record” presents a searing, at times shocking exposé of alleged criminal acts. Yet here, as in those earlier chronicles, what’s extraordinary is the disturbingly intimate communion the film creates between the audience and the survivors. Not just the facts but the meaning of these alleged crimes comes scarily alive in the emotional details of their telling.

Even before premiering at Sundance, “On the Record” had come to occupy the center of its own drama, when Oprah Winfrey, who was one of the film’s executive producers, withdrew her name from the project, scuttling the distribution deal it was set to receive with Apple. That means that the film has come into Sundance looking for a distributor — but far more crucial, the abruptness of Winfrey’s departure raised the question of why she was abandoning a project that she had shepherded (one built around an issue that, as a survivor of sexual abuse herself, she has long put a spotlight on). Winfrey says she thought the film wasn’t ready for Sundance, and that there were “inconsistencies” in Dixon’s story that “gave me pause.” There was also a report in The New York Times that after showing the film to director Ava DuVernay, Winfrey decided that “On the Record” didn’t offer a rich enough understanding of the hip-hop world that Russell Simmons emerged from and helped to build.

Winfrey’s ultimate motivation remains murky, but I can testify that “On the Record,” as a documentary, feels fully finished — it’s been made with the seamlessly crafted, open-eyed humanity we’ve come to expect from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have made several pivotal documentaries (“The Hunting Ground,” “The Invisible War”) on the subject of rape. Dixon’s testimony is powerfully convincing, and the film presents the culture of hip-hop with a deft insider authority. It’s at once sympathetic and sophisticated enough about the social import and sexual braggadocio of the hip-hop world to celebrate its bad-boy artistry and, at the same time, to call its bitches-and-hos misogyny on the carpet with an honesty you rarely encounter in music documentaries. But that wouldn’t work if the film were less knowing about it.

In the testimonials of sexual abuse that have come to light in the wake of #MeToo, it might be an exaggeration to say that the experience of the victims has been overshadowed. Yet it’s part of the nature of these crimes that when they’re exposed, the people who commit them can exert the domineering force of mesmerizing monsters. Even now, to take in the horrific and revelatory reports about Harvey Weinstein is to focus, inevitably…on Harvey Weinstein.

“On the Record” offers an essential corrective to that dynamic. The film draws us into the life of Drew Dixon, a woman of compellingly down-to-earth poise, intelligence, passion, and charisma. She grew up in Washington, D.C., where as the daughter of African-American politicians (her mother served as mayor of D.C.) she was a teenage music fanatic who befriended Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.) and was drawn to the raw majesty of hip-hop. She moved to New York after attending Stanford, and as a rising fixture of the rap world caught the attention of Simmons, who invited her to work for his formative label, Def Jam. Dixon became an A&R executive, cementing her place by assembling the influential soundtrack for the 1995 documentary “The Show” and helping to build the careers of artists like Method Man, whom she put together with Mary J. Blige for the seminal mash-up “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” But what she experienced at Def Jam was a dizzying rise up the music-industry ladder accompanied by a sickening descent.

She talks about the harassment she endured within the corridors of Def Jam, where, she alleges, Simmons would come into her office with his penis exposed. He was someone she idolized, and she recalls how she would try to rationalize his behavior (“I thought he was, like, this tragic ADD puppy dog who I had to keep re-training”). But one evening, after partying at Bowery Bar, Simmons pressured her into coming up to his apartment to hear a demo, then asked her to go into his bedroom to get the CD. The next thing she knew, he was there, naked with a condom on, “telling me to stop fighting in a very cold, menacing, detached voice that I’d never heard from him before.” Later in the film, another accuser, the writer and activist Sil Lai Abrams, describes a strikingly similar encounter (in Simmons’ bedroom, his sudden appearance wearing a condom, etc.), comparing it to being on an airplane and realizing it’s going to crash. (Simmons has denied that he ever engaged in sex that was nonconsensual.)

After leaving Def Jam, Dixon went to work for Clive Davis at Arista, an experience that proved fruitful until the executive L.A. Reid took over and also, she claims, subjected her to harassment. She says in the movie that Reid was so angry when she refused his advances that, out of spite, he passed on signing an unknown artist she brought to him named Kanye West.

If “On the Record” were simply a record of sexual harassment and violence, it would end there. But the movie plunges deeper than perhaps any #MeToo narrative we’ve seen into the tortured ambivalence that women who’ve been victimized feel about calling out their accusers. For Dixon, becoming an influential hip-hop executive was her dream career, and she feared that Simmons, the so-called godfather of rap, would crush it like that. In addition, the film looks at the particular conundrum that black women face in spotlighting predatory behavior by black men. Black women, the film says, have often felt disconnected from #MeToo, since to publicly “destroy” a man like Russell Simmons is an action frowned upon by large segments of the African-American community. Dixon says that she felt enormous pressure not to do so, and some of the film’s moral drama comes from scenes shot two years ago, after the Weinstein reckoning, when Dixon is considering going on the record in The New York Times. It’s as though she’s meditating on passing through a ring of fire.

Dixon ultimately did go public, in a 3,600-word Times story published on Dec. 13, 2017. And so much of the testimony in “On the Record” isn’t new. Yet to let this movie immerse you in Dixon’s hopes and dreams and fears and rage, and to live the experience of how her journey became a nightmare of profound trauma, is to come away with a more devastating understanding of the price extracted by sexual violence, and the insidious ways it can remain hidden from the world. Did Simmons, like Weinstein, employ a network of enablers? Most likely, but the film suggests that he hardly needed one. He was shielded by the smoothness of his image, by the awe in which the world held him, and by the brute arrogance of his power.

‘On the Record’: Film Review

Reviewed online, New York, Jan. 22, 2020. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>95 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) Producers: Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick, Amy Herdy, Jamie Rogers. Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Regina K. Scully, Ian Darling, Patty Quillin, Ann Lovell, Mari Snyder Johnson, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Julie Smolyansky.
  • Crew: Directors, writers: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering. Camera: Ava Berkofsky, Thaddeus Wadleigh. Editor: Sara Newens. Music: Terence Blanchard.
  • With: Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke , Keirna Mayo, Kimberly Williams Crenshaw.