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Sundance 2020: ‘On the Record’ Gives Russell Simmons’ Accusers the Spotlight

Documentary on the allegations of sexual assault leveled at the hip-hop mogul premieres to standing ovations—and significantly changes the conversation around these accusations

Drew Dixon, one of the subjects of 'On the Record,' a documentary about sexual harassment allegations against Russell Simmons.

Martyna Starosta/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Even if you didn’t know Drew Dixon’s name, you definitely knew the fruits of her labor. The daughter of Washington D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt and a Stanford alumna, she was an unabashed music fan. Dixon especially loved hip-hop, which is why, when she managed to secure an A&R job at Def Jam Records in the early ’90s, she felt like she’d won the lottery. Her instincts for spotting new artists were peerless; she was one of the first to single out the Notorious B.I.G. as a major talent. The soundtrack to the hip-hop documentary The Show and the Mary J. Blige/Method Man duet “You’re All I Need”? That was all her.

And Dixon had boundless admiration for Russell Simmons, Def Jam’s co-founder who’d earned the nickname “the godfather of rap,” even if he had a habit of coming on to her. A lot. She rebuffed his advances, figured out ways to stave off possible situations in which he might try to get her alone or get aggressive with her, and figured her successes at the label made her too valuable to alienate. Hey, it’s just the price of being an attractive woman in the music industry, right? Then after a business dinner one night, Simmons offered to call Dixon a car so she could get home. His apartment was right there. I’ll wait downstairs, she told him. But I have a demo to play you, he’s said to have replied, come up and hear it. So she went with him. And that, Dixon alleges, was when Simmons violently sexually assaulted her.

“Who we decide to listen to is predicated on who we value in America,” says writer Shanita Hubbard* early on in On the Record, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s already controversial documentary about the numerous accusations against the hip-hop mogul. What keeps jumping out as you watch this undeniably moving, unsettling film is the bigger picture looming over these specific allegations, and the world of hip-hop in general. Dixon is African-American. So is Sil Lai Abrams, Sherri Hines, Jenny Lumet, Toni Sallie, Alexia Norton Jones and several other of the 20 women who’ve accused Simmons. And while such crimes cut across racial lines (see: the victims of way too many other powerful men in show business and beyond), the film does a great job of underlining how even the #MeToo movement may have replicated social constraints and relegated such voices to the sideline. You can single out some weak spots in how Ziering and Dick, two cinematic muckrakers with a hell of a track record (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground), mount their case here. But you can’t say they don’t value these voices or give them a larger stage on which to be heard.

It’s Dixon’s story in particular that gets the bulk of screen time, however. And while the decision to deal with a lot of larger issues — from the growing allegations against Simmons (all of which he categorically denies) to a long history of black women being silenced — via her personal narrative sometimes works against the film, it’s impossible to say that you do not feel shaken as you listen to her recount what happened. Like Leaving Neverland, Surviving R. Kelly and the Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable, Ziering and Dick’s movie does not pull punches when it comes to graphically describing the assaults. It’s not easy to hear about Dixon sitting in her shower, fully clothed, after what happened, or how disillusioned she became with the industry as a whole. It’s not easy to hear how, after exiting Def Jam and getting a job with Arista, she went from being mentored by Clive Davis to being messed with and subsequently marginalized by his successor, L.A. Reid. (He’s also denied the allegations from both Dixon and a handful of other women.) Nor is it easy to hear her talk about how she could no longer even listen to music and how her talents were squandered, her passion tainted, her trauma affected her marriage and mental health. But it’s necessary, as is hearing Abrams and Hines recount their horrific tales at length. They deserve to be heard, and believed.

On the Record lets several other victims speak their piece, though why a half dozen other accounts are reduced to a mere rapid-fire montage is never really clarified. It’s one more example of the toggling between macro- and micro-narratives the movie does as it tries to cover as much ground as possible. Misogyny in the hip-hop culture gets a shout-out, though in the film’s best sequence, we watch Dixon listening to a Hot 97 D.J. read his peers the riot act for not calling out Simmons and supporting these women sooner; the fact that he’s wearing a hoodie with Michael Jackson’s face on it while he’s doing this is an example of how complicated it is when it comes to who we choose to cancel. (That, and a case study in bad optics.) How sexism, toxic masculinity, complicity and not-so-borderline criminal behavior is baked into the music business gets pecked at but never fully unpacked. Dixon’s decision to reach out to the New York Times after Lumet’s Hollywood Reporter interview about Simmons and the Weinstein exposés, which we get see unfold onscreen, allows us to take this healing journey with her. But the back-and-forth between that and the various other strands sometimes feels jarring. It’s a lot for just two hours. They could have, and maybe should have, turned this into a multi-part miniseries.

Still, the impact of On the Record is as impossible to ignore as the mounting indictments against both specific individuals and the industry as a whole. That this now-Oprahless, now-temporarily homeless doc comes right on the heels of the current metastasizing Grammys shitshow only exemplifies its overall relevance. At the movie’s Sundance premiere last night, Ziering and Dick got a standing ovation before the movie had started. Afterward, the reception that the filmmakers, Dixon, Abrams and other survivors got was positively seismic. “[We needed] allies that were not subject to the same dynamic,” Dixon said about the directors at the premiere. Whether that aspect factors in to how hip-hop culture, those who still have professional connections to the accused and show business at large deal with the subject moving forward, it’s definitely changed the conversation. Conveniently ignoring these allegations is no longer an option. There should be no going back now.

*This article has been updated with proper attribution to the quote.