Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. HBO Max releases the film on its streaming platform on Wednesday, May 27.
Kirby Dick’s documentaries often generate a lot of headlines around their explosive subjects — from the closeted gay politicians in “Outrage” to the rape victims in “The Invisible War” and the campus sexual assault survivors of “The Hunting Ground” — but nothing has generated more advance press than “On the Record.” Co-directed with longtime producing partner Amy Ziering, the searing overview of rape charges against hip hop mogul Russell Simmons lost its high-profile distribution partnership with Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ weeks ahead of the Sundance premiere. Reports suggest the talk show host had doubts on some of the movie’s allegations, possibly as a result of pressure from Simmons himself.
Was it worth the extra noise? That answer comes in part by separating the ambiguity of Winfrey’s decision from the actual source. “On the Record” is straightforward enough: Despite a few meandering detours down the history of ‘90s hip hop and the sensitive debates surrounding sexual assault among black women, the movie treads familiar terrain — much of its allegations are already a matter of public record.
Its main subject, former music producer Drew Dixon, joined two other women in speaking out about Simmons’ abuse in a 2017 New York Times story. The bulk of “On the Record” follows her as she wrestles with the decision to do exactly that. To that end, it’s a smart and sturdy behind-the-scenes look at a high-profile #MeToo drama, and succeeds at scrutinizing the conundrum facing countless women still afraid of speaking out.
The Times executed an extensive background check on Dixon even before she agreed to participate in its story, so any hesitation to accept her at her word also serves as a de facto repudiation of the paper’s two-year-old reporting. But at a moment when “believe survivors” is often a rallying cry, such uncertainty around Dixon — a veteran of the hip hop scene until she decided to leave it — registers as part of the very problem that the movie takes up.
In any case, Dixon makes for a stirring centerpiece. The daughter of former Washington D.C. mayor Arrington Dixon, she grew up with grand ambition just as black music entered an exciting new phase. Her candid interviews carry over bountiful archival footage as she ventures down memory lane, and for a time, the movie doubles as a mini-history of the early-’90s hip hop scene. As Simmons came to prominence with Def Jam Records, Dixon was at the frontlines, helping kick off the careers of everyone from Run-DMC to Jay-Z and Foxy Brown.
No matter the psychological wounds she endured later on, Dixon still brightens when recalling the idea to pair Method Man with Mary J. Blige for “You’re All I Need,” and what it meant to her when she received a shoutout on the Simmons-produced blockbuster album “The Show” in 1995.
Still, “On the Record” acknowledges where it’s heading early on, beginning with the aftermath of the Times’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein that precipitated the #MeToo movement. The movie hardly lingers on Dixon’s memories — she rushes through several anecdotes, and reveals the harrowing rape story some 45 minutes in — but it sticks close to the challenges she faces in speaking out.
It’s here that “On the Record” lands its most compelling observations, capturing Dixon as she speaks by phone with New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli and talks through her many understandable hesitancies. In the process, the filmmakers recap the broader pattern of accusations against Simmons, starting with Jenny Lumet and continuing through another 19 victims.
If Simmons hoped he could hide from the spotlight over the last two years, “On the Record” magnifies it all over again. That’s also true for the accusations Dixon makes against former Epic Records executive L.A. Reid in the same Times article. Reid left Epic months before the story ran, and his case has received less media scrutiny, but Dixon’s devastating recollections of facing abuse from him after surviving Simmons’ assaults make it clear why she finally decided to leave the industry behind.
Alternately fragile and determined in front of the camera, Dixon serves as a harrowing embodiment of the drama at hand. The movie only struggles when it wanders away from her, as its white filmmakers make uneasy attempts to plug her plight into a larger cultural puzzle. The movie’s plentiful talking heads — a collection of black intellectuals and music industry veterans — make a number of astute observations about the history of sexual assault in the music business, but when “On the Record” ventures away from its central figure it lands in murkier territory.
After one passage illustrates the tradition of misogyny in hip hop lyrics, the filmmakers retreat to a montage of other musical genres that are just as guilty. As Dixon talks through the potential negative impact of speaking out, the filmmakers dutifully conjure moments from Anita Hill’s congressional testimony and the backlash to Mike Tyson victim Desiree Washington to underscore her fears. However, while the cutaways may be blunt, her anxiety is anything but. “Black women will hate my guts,” Dixon frets, as experts explain the fear of adding fuel to “the myth of the sexually aggressive black man.”
At times it seems as if “On the Record” might have benefited from exploring a wider range of accusations to bolster Dixon’s claims, but her central role imbues the movie with an affecting emotional foundation. With its closing act, the filmmakers capture the full equation from the inside out: how #MeToo survivors experience the process of going public and watching their stories become part of a broader debate, and the catharsis that comes from victims finding each other in the aftermath.
This time, Dick and Ziering have put less effort into exposing systematic evil than in celebrating the value of taking it on — and bemoaning the forces that try to stop that result. “When powerful women go away, it’s a loss for all of us,” one subject tells the camera. “On the Record,” however, fixates on the potential they still have to come back.
“On the Record” premiered in the Documentary Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.