“On the Record,” a harrowing documentary about the burden of women of color in the #MeToo movement, has been upstaged for nearly a month by the departure of former executive producer Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey, who had also guaranteed the film’s distribution through an overall streaming deal with Apple, was always meant to amplify an urgent conversation around intersectional silence-breakers and their search for justice and cultural reform. Her exit, over vague “inconsistencies” in accounts of rape and assault against mogul Russell Simmons, have had the opposite effect, his accusers said.
“What’s happening with this film and the difficult path it’s finding, even in the home stretch, to just see the light of day is sort of a meta example of what the whole conversation of the film is about,” Drew Dixon, a former music executive who accused Simmons of rape in 2017, told Variety at last week’s Sundance film festival.
Flanked by fellow accusers and stars of the doc, Sil Lai Abrams and Sherri Hynes, and her directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, Dixon said that the disruption caused by Winfrey was another form of assault. One that all the women would need time to process and heal from, individual of the crimes they accuse Simmons of perpetrating against them.
“I feel like I’ve been this patient on the operating table for two years, wound completely open. And just when I thought they were going to close up the patient, the hospital collapsed around me,” Dixon said.
Both directors and stars admitted that the thunderous ovation following the film’s Park City premiere helped lower anxiety levels, but the void left by Winfrey would linger.
“It was the most terrifying experience. I still haven’t processed that trauma, because I just wanted to get through Sundance. Last night, having just seen the film in a theater, warmly received, I feel like the patient has been closed up and I can be, sort of, sent home from the hospital. That feeling of being suspended for so long and this sort of hairpin turn at the end, it’s been really, really hard. A trauma in and of itself, that we’re all going to be unpacking for a while,” she said.
Dick and Ziering, Oscar nominees and veterans in the doc space when it comes to sexual assault, followed the wrenching path of these women and numerous others in “On the Record,” to speak out amidst pressure from a mainstream culture that idolizes SImmons (who has vehemently denied all accusations against him) and the double-bind of what his accusers called an expectation to remain loyal to their race at large.
“When you talk about historically the way that we as a people have been able to push back and fight against white supremacy and colonialism, imperialism, chattel slavery — it was through the bonds, the unity of our race. And that has driven us through various social movements and advancements from the beginning of this country. We’re indoctrinated into ‘race first’ and it has saved us,” said Abrams of this complexity. “The people who are doing this to us are our men. I’m not saying that black men are inherently bad. What I am saying is that there are men who are serial predators, who ultimately are able to continue to attack and continue their predatory behavior, because we feel such an absolute conviction that, one, we do not want to be responsible for putting a black man in prison and, two, going against the code of our race and our culture and community.”
Dixon concurred with emotion, invoking her own son.
“Three years ago, George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin because the jury believed that he was capable of using the sidewalk as a lethal weapon. Ok? So this is not theoretical. There is a mythology right now in America that black men and boys are dangerous. So, when we speak out about a really, truly dangerous black man and that becomes a headline — Trayvon Martin is more vulnerable. Tamir Rice is more vulnerable. Michael Brown is more vulnerable,” she said. “I know that if I speak out, some boy, some man, could be racially profiled and die in an altercation with the police. And that police officer will be acquitted because somebody saw a headline about Russell Simmons, and they think we all look alike. It’s very, very real.”
Hynes, a rapper who was part of the dawn-of-hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, said she remained silent for decades because no one would have believed her — especially as Simmons continued to blaze trails for African Americans in recording, film and fashion.
“From somebody that grew up in the Bronx and that community, we all women had a habit of holding up the neighborhood. It could have been your brother that was a drug dealer… we held each other up because we was all we had in the hood,” Hynes said. “How is it that me, a woman of color, that did nothing but hold up my community of black men … always had they back and support, and then somebody turn around that I held up — we trusted him, and my mother trusted him with our music, to violate me? How do you think I feel?”
The film is still seeking a distributor, and its creators and subjects are hopeful they can inspire a meaningful conversation and, as one said, a call to action.
“The onus is on non-violent men to take a stand,” Abrams concluded. “Men who are bystanders but, for whatever reason, such as what we’re talking about, choose to prioritize their gender over the safety of our community.”