cinema

Russell Simmons Documentary Premieres Amid Controversy

PARK CITY, Utah — Outside the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “On the Record,” the documentary about women who have accused the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct, a truck flashed an electronic sign in support of survivors: “Hold sexual abusers accountable.” Inside, the directors were thanking the festival for its support after Oprah Winfrey backed out as an executive producer.

Drew Dixon, a central figure in “On the Record,” in a scene from the film.Credit…Omar Mullick/Sundance Institute

Simmons has denied the accusations, and Winfrey has said creative differences with the directors led to her withdrawal. But she acknowledged this month that the Def Jam founder had tried to get her to abandon the project: “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me.”

At the film’s premiere on Saturday, its two directors, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, seemed to refer to the controversy when Ziering told the crowd, “Thanks to Sundance for standing strong and never blinking.” She added, “These are difficult times. It’s important to stand up for truth, justice and moral authority.”

The audience — which included the Netflix chairman and chief executive Reed Hastings, the CNN chief Jeff Zucker and the actresses Rosanna Arquette and Frances Fisher — was mostly silent during the screening. But applause broke out when the film’s central figure, Drew Dixon, who has accused Simmons of raping her, said, “It’s time to take seriously the plunder of black women.” The crowd also applauded when “On the Record” showed a group of hip-hop D.J.s affirming their support for the accusers.

After the screening, Dixon along with two other women from the documentary, Sil Lai Abrams and Sherri Hines, went onstage to a standing ovation and took part in a Q. and A. along with the directors.

Asked whether the fact that Ziering and Dick are white was one reason the documentary faced pushback, Dixon alluded to deep divisions among African-Americans over the #MeToo movement and whether black men were singled out for their race. The filmmakers “aren’t subject to the incoming pressure that even powerful black people are subject to,” Dixon told the audience. “They listened and deferred to us and centered us.”

Before Winfrey pulled out of the project, she had sought changes in the film to address the broader cultural context of the music industry. What the audience saw on Saturday reflected those changes.

“On the Record” follows Dixon as she weighs whether to take her sexual abuse claims public. Dixon, a 48-year-old former music executive, claims that Simmons raped her in 1995 when she was working for him as a young executive. Simmons has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex.

Ziering and Dick, who have spent the past decade revealing sexual assault in the military (“The Invisible War”) and on college campuses (“The Hunting Ground”), begin tracking Dixon in the wake of the #MeToo movement, after an explosive column by the screenwriter Jenny Lumet alleging abuse against Simmons. Dixon’s claims are similar, and the film focuses on her as she grapples with her fears about how the black community will respond.

She also admits to idolizing Simmons when he first hired her: “Russell Simmons was who I wanted to be,” she says in the film. “I couldn’t have scripted it better.”

Recalling Anita Hill’s claims against Clarence Thomas when he was nominated for the Supreme Court, and Desiree Washington’s accusations against Mike Tyson, Dixon agonizes over whether she wants to go public, fearing that she is up against a force much larger than herself. “I’m never going to be that person,” she says in the film. “The black community is going to hate my guts.”

The documentary also discusses the culture at the time: misogyny in the music business, both in specifics when it came to hip-hop, and in general terms, pointing out that the rap genre didn’t invent the use of degrading images of women in its music videos. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke is also a frequent voice, adding commentary about black women’s place in the movement, and their feelings of alienation. “Black women feel like they have to support black men,” she said.

The movie returns to the Simmons case and other women’s stories: Abrams, a former model who had a relationship with him, tells her abuse story and the aftermath, when she tried to kill herself. “I’m a failure, a chew toy for men of power,” she says in the documentary. Hines, from the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, also tells her story, agonizing over its consequences.

The film concludes with a tearful meeting between Abrams, Dixon and Lumet. The three join together for a survivor’s reunion, part commiseration over their shared experiences, part celebration of their recovery.

“I wish I could have come forward earlier,” Lumet says regretfully. “He could have left everyone else alone.” SOURCE OF THIS STORY: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/movies/russell-simmons-documentary-controversy.html