Directed and produced by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (“The Hunting Ground”), “On the Record” presents the powerful story of high-ranking music executive Drew Dixon (collaborator on hit records by Method Man and Mary J. Blige, Estelle and Kanye West, and Whitney Houston) as she grapples with her decision to become one of the first women of color in the wake of #MeToo to come forward and publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault.
The documentary, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, chronicles not only Dixon’s story but that of other accusers: Sil Lai Abrams, an activist and author who also worked at Def Jam, and Sheri Sher of pioneering all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies. It delves deeply into the ways women of colors’ voices are all too often silenced and ignored when they allege sexual assault — as well as the cultural forces that pressure them to remain silent.
The documentary arrives on HBO Max on May 27 — the same day the streaming service launches — and for its three main subjects, it’s a kind of bittersweet moment: relief that it will finally be seen by a wider audience, and anxiety caused by the uncertainty of what will be the general reaction.
“It’s a mix of feelings,” said Dixon, who alleges then-boss Simmons raped her at his New York home in 1995. “I’m excited that we’re crossing the starting line, hopefully for our conversation that is really long overdue, about the vulnerability of black women, in particular, when it comes to sexual violence. But I’ve been dreading this moment from the second I agreed to do it, because just the emotional impact of going public three years ago, was much greater than I anticipated. So I’m very weary of underestimating what the emotional impact of the film reaching a broader audience could be.”
Abrams, who alleges that Simmons raped her in 1994, is most concerned about her family members, and feels somewhat paralyzed by the moment. “I’m kind of numb about it, because it’s been such an overwhelming experience,” she said. “The process of getting to market was a very complicated one, and the subject matter is painful, because you’re revisiting trauma and exposing a part of you that, even some family members didn’t know about. And so I really am just kind of suspended in time.”
For Sher, it’s a continuation of a journey that began 14 years ago, when she revealed details of her alleged rape in a 2006 book based on her life titled “Mercedes Ladies.” “It was rough, a lot of emotions, a lot of healing inside that needed to happen, fear, and things that had held me back from being my greatest self,” she said. “But now, it’s a relief, and it’s just the time for the film to be out, and I hope it actually lets people know their worth, and to not be afraid to fight the giant.”
Simmons has denied all allegations, and declined requests to be interviewed for the film.
Dixon, Abrams, and Sher all had their own reasons to initially keep quiet about their allegations, but Simmons’ reach in the black community was a key factor, in addition to what he meant as a pioneer in the hip-hop subculture. As black women, they also wrestled with their own societal expectations.
“One is never fully prepared for what it is like to Google yourself and to see all of your accomplishments as an individual erased because now I’m known as one of Russell Simmons’ victims,” Abrams said. “And to have that erasure of my core identity as a woman and as a business person, is very troubling.”
The documentary was a subject of controversy when it lost Oprah Winfrey as its executive producer ahead of its Sundance premiere because the mogul felt it needed more reporting. Winfrey’s exit was disappointing and deeply worrying for Dixon, Abrams and Sher, because the film not only lost the support of a very powerful figure, but also lost its distributor, Apple TV+. The idea that the film might not see the light of day was terrifying.
“In some ways her exit was an incredibly important transformational moment for us because it felt like the floor just disappeared, right before the already scary premiere at Sundance,” Dixon said. “But we caught each other kind of in mid-air, and we stood up for ourselves. And I learned that my story is about me not needing to hide behind this famous, powerful person. I’m incredibly grateful to her that she believed in us. But I’m also gratified that I found the strength in myself I didn’t know I had.”
In hindsight, Abrams sees it as a silver lining to a terribly dark cloud, because the press that the film received ahead of Sundance when Winfrey pulled out generated a tremendous amount of interest and anticipation. “I think the most important thing that she did was to say that she believes the survivors, and had that not been the case, I might feel differently,” she said.
The documentary still premiered at Sundance to standing ovations. Critics heaped lavish praise on it, including IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, who called it “a smart and sturdy behind-the-scenes look at a high-profile #MeToo drama.”
Although for Sher, watching the film during the premiere was a shock — she saw herself be vulnerable in a way that she wasn’t expecting. “I’m just a person that never likes to show weakness, and when I see myself in the film and I look at the pain that I was displaying that finally came out, I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “Because in a way, I wanted to show him that I’m still standing, that I’m still doing things. I wanted to show him my accomplishments that I have done behind all of this pain, without using his name and could have.”
Ultimately, all three women hope that when audiences watch “On the Record,” they understand it is not just about the music industry, but about the plight of black women, irrespective of socioeconomic status, caught in a double bind between feeling compelled to protect the black community while also needing to tell their truths without being ostracized by that community.
“I think women are going to have to fight this toxic patriarchy for a very long time, but doubly so for black woman, because you’re at the back of the #MeToo bus,” Dixon said. “So it was very important to me that I get on the bus as a black woman so that we didn’t miss our moment. Then, I try to move to the front, at least for the 90 minutes of this film, that we shine a light on the unique obstacles that we face. I’m just so grateful that HBO Max stepped up and that we are going to find an audience. I’m really just bracing for impact, because I hope it’s well received. It’s hard when you’re taking on the status quo. You do not know how people will react.”
“On the Record” premieres on HBO Max on Wednesday, May 27.