Since the #MeToo movement blew the lid off of systemic sexual assault and harassment across the entertainment industry, women of color have had to speak up a little louder for their stories to be heard.
The conversation around whose stories are worth listening to instantly became a critique of #MeToo as advocates fought for women outside of wealthy white celebrities to have visibility. It’s always worth repeating that activist Tarana Burke started #MeToo back in 2006, but it only found momentum when actor Alyssa Milano unknowingly picked up the mantle amid the public reporting of Harvey Weinstein’s history of actions in 2017.
Organizations like Time’s Up have done well in establishing legal defense resources and a division specifically for women of color, but there are still nuances to intersectionality within the context of #MeToo’s wake that still need to be explored in greater depth.
The documentary On the Record is a good place to start.
Directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground), On the Record details the sexual assault allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons. The film profiles several survivors including writer and domestic violence awareness activist Sil Lai Abrams; the founding member of Mercedes Ladies, hip-hop’s first all-female group, Sheri Sher; and former Def Jam A&R exec Drew Dixon, whose rise and forced fall in the industry is at the heart of the doc. Through their stories and thoughtful supplemental interviews, On the Record skillfully lays out the layered intricacies involved in black survivors speaking out against black perpetrators.
Getting past the still-too-high hurdle of believing any survivor when their story goes public, there’s also getting media attention and support around black voices. Deeper still is the reticence that some in the community (even survivors) feel in accusing black men in power, because they don’t want heroes to fall in the public eye, let alone add to the deep-seated stereotype of black male aggression. Even deeper still is the question of which black survivors are able to hold court in the mainstream, a decision that can sometimes boil down to an issue like colorism.
It’s a complicated nexus that forced even Oprah Winfrey to withdraw as an executive producer, citing concerns about the doc not having substantial cultural context, not to mention having to field sharp criticisms from Simmons and his high-profile supporters.
“I think the film does an amazing job of beginning a conversation,” Dixon says. “It’s so hard as black women, as black people—we always get the one thing to the hundred things that everybody else gets. And so I don’t think it’s fair to expect any single film to do all of the heavy lifting for a conversation that dates back to 1619 when the Atlantic slave trade first brought us over and we first bought our bodily autonomy and when half of the women in the middle passage arrived pregnant because they were raped in the middle passage. One 90-minute movie can’t possibly cover all those bases, but I hope it begins the conversation. That’s the intention.”
Prior even to hitting the festival circuit, On the Record started to make headlines, not necessarily because of the allegations against Simmons, but for the fact that Winfrey, one of the inaugural members of the Time’s Up movement and outspoken ally for sexual assault survivors, was pulling her support for the film right before it was set to premiere at Sundance in January.
“It was very nerve-racking, very traumatic,” Ziering says. “But when you’re dealing with these issues, you can’t be surprised there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road.”
Winfrey has stated that her exit from the doc had nothing to do with being intimidated by Simmons, but more that she had problems with the project that she wanted addressed, which Ziering and Dick complied with, such as adding more interviews to contextualize the boys’ club mentality in hip-hop and the music industry at large. On top of that, she reportedly sent the film to director and friend Ava DuVernay for advice. According to The New York Times:
She asked Ms. DuVernay to watch it with an eye toward how well the two filmmakers, who are white, captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women.
Ms. DuVernay, who directed Selma and the Netflix series When They See Us, about the so-called Central Park Five who were wrongly imprisoned for rape, gave a harsh critique, which was later echoed in a letter Ms. Winfrey sent to the filmmakers informing them of her withdrawal.
When Winfrey was attached to the project, On the Record was slated to be released through Apple Plus as part of her partnership with the streamer, but the film has since moved to HBO Max.
“That was my worst fear come to life, that my protector in the black community would be attacked within the black community for standing by our side,” Dixon says. “I hated to see Oprah Winfrey exposed to that and then I was devastated when she exited and then all of a sudden we were alone and exposed to that, but we survived it. We held our ground. We held each other up. And we insisted that this film get a shot and HBO Max emerged.”
“I learned a lot more about power than I ever knew before,” Ziering adds. “The film is about how difficult it is to come forward with these stories. It’s interesting and instructive that those dynamics played out in real time in ways that completely floored and surprised us, but actually probably shouldn’t have.”
Winfrey backing out, in a way, echoes the complexities of what On the Record attempts to sort through.
Winfrey had already caught some heat for her involvement with the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland. And her close friend and journalist Gayle King faced her own backlash for pressing WNBA star Lisa Leslie about Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault allegations. Similar conversations circulated around Bill Cosby and R. Kelly at the height of their respective media storms: Should the community rally around its prominent figures even in the face of damning allegations? One hopes the support will always be with the survivors, but, as On the Record illustrates, that is yet to be the default.
That has certainly been the case for Simmons whose status as the godfather of hip-hop has made him unimpeachable to some. Aside from his power to sway opinions based solely on his résumé, what the Simmons allegations also bring to light is the idea of whose stories, even within the parameters of black women, are told.
As writer Shanita Hubbard so accurately states at the beginning of On the Record: “America picks and chooses who they’re going to listen to. Not only does class have an indicator but what that person looks like has an indicator. So who we decide to listen to is totally predicated as who we see as valuable in America.”
That, of course, extends to the issue of colorism.
In On the Record, Dixon and Abrams unpack the notion that because of how they’re viewed by the mainstream (i.e., the white gaze) as light-skinned women, that may have played a hand in giving them such a public platform even beyond Simmons being a celebrity.
“His predilection for light-skinned women made him vulnerable to exposure, because I believe had he preferred brown-skin women, we would not be sitting here with this documentary because our stories never would have been told,” Abrams says. “And that is, in part, due to the racism and colorism that exists within the media industry and the gatekeepers who do not report on the assault that dark-skinned women experience.”
“One of the reasons why I thought it was important to be self- aware and to articulate my understanding of the way I navigate the world as a black woman is because in deciding to go forward with the documentary, I thought about the fact that within the framework of the white gaze, we might be seen and have this opportunity in the first place and be allowed to hold this space because of how we look,” Dixon says. “They may not be able to see my sister, but I wanted to take the opportunity and insist that we grab the 90 minutes afforded to us by the brave and incredibly talented filmmakers to tell the story and begin the conversation that is so long overdue for all black women, no matter what we look like, where we come from.”
No matter skin color, presumably one of the harder aspects after breaking your silence as a survivor is figuring out how to move forward in telling your story but not allowing it to consume your identity.
For Abrams, Sher, and Dixon, their shared past trauma has given them different shades of a similar outlook.
“I’m walking a tightrope in that I understand by participating in this project that I am being seen, my story is being heard by more people, and because of the framing of the narrative, it is about my victimization at the hands of Russell Simmons,” Abrams says. “So I wrestle with the idea that a lot of the headlines focus on a trauma that occurred and present it as a central feature of my identity. That is quite frustrating because I have been an activist within the gender violence realm for 13 years. And prior to me coming forward, I used to do television. I wrote for magazines. Now I’m reduced to ‘Russell Simmons, sexual assault accuser.’ What I want to come out of this is a shift. I know that this is part of the wave. This is part of the processing that I need to go through. But I’m very intentional about this not being where the story ends, and that it’s possible that I’ll be able to reinvent myself.”
“I never used Russell’s name for nothing,” Sher says. “I always was a driven person and so for this to come out, I don’t want it to be looked at as I was a victim and I’m destroyed. No. I like to see myself as a victor and not as a victim, even though I was victimized. I never stopped doing anything and I kept going forward, cause I’m a driven person and always have been. With this coming out, I did not want my greatness to be shadowed by the story of Russell.”
“I spent 22 years making sure that I would not be known as a woman who was raped by Russell Simmons. And by doing that, I gave him power over me,” Dixon says. “I wrote myself into this tiny little corner to accommodate that fictional story. Once I said it out loud, I could leave the corner. I could move around the whole entire page freely for the first time in 22 years and just live my life and live my truth and not worry about accidentally tripping a wire or exposing him. So I am no longer, for the first time in my life, defined by my experience as having been raped by Russell Simmons. I was defined by that for myself by making sure that I didn’t expose him. Now, Google may see me as a woman who was raped by Russell Simmons, but I don’t see myself that way anymore. I’m done worrying about it. I’m done thinking about it. I’m just Drew Dixon, and it’s now receded into the background as something painful that happened to me that I have finally overcome. So I am, for the first time in my life, free of his narrative precisely because I said it out loud.”