Documentary on Russell Simmons’ alleged sexual misconduct premieres at Sundance
Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ backed out, leaving questions over film’s future
PARK CITY, UTAH — Perhaps the toughest buy at Sundance is also one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2020.
The long-awaited film, which documents alleged sexual harassment by one of the music industry’s marquee names, Russell Simmons, debuted Saturday evening at the film festival.
Until two weeks ago, the film had a home and a huge co-sign from Oprah Winfrey, a survivor of sexual abuse who has spoken about her experience. Winfrey was an executive producer and was planning to air it on Apple TV+.
But on Jan. 10, Winfrey announced she was departing the project and pulled it from the streaming service, saying it needed more work.
“First and foremost, I want it to be known that I unequivocally believe and support the women. Their stories deserve to be told and heard,” Winfrey said in a statement released by AppleTV+. “In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision.”
The film, called On the Record, is co-directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who have done previous documentaries on sexual assault in the military and rape on college campuses. The production team said it has plenty of evidence of sexual misconduct by Simmons, a co-founder of Def Jam Recordings.
“We have always championed the voices of those who have been wrongly silenced. The women in this film have made a great sacrifice by coming forward to tell their stories in their own words. We are honored to support them,” said the statement from the producers. “We stand firmly behind the work of the intrepid filmmakers who continue to break new ground by advancing important stories in the public interest.”
In December, Simmons took to Instagram to deny the allegations and implored Winfrey to stop working on the documentary. In his post, he said that Winfrey was a “shining light to my family and my community” who has contributed so much to his life. “This is why it’s so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentry. I have already admitted to being a playboy more (appropriately titled today “womanizer”) sleeping with and putting myself in more compromising situations than almost any man I know. Not 8 or 14 thousand like Warren Beatty or Wilt Chamberlain, but still an embarrassing number,” he wrote. “So many that some could reinterpret or reimagine a different recollection of the same experiences.”
He also said that he has taken and passed nine three-hour lie detector tests that he took for his daughters.
Simmons received support from rapper 50 Cent, who also posted on Instagram asking why Winfrey was going after black men and not someone like former film producer Harvey Weinstein, now on trial for rape. (The rapper was referencing Winfrey’s hourlong special, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland, which aired immediately on both OWN and HBO after the broadcast of Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary that accuses Michael Jackson of sexual misconduct against young boys.)
In this new documentary, former artists and repertoire (A&R) exec Drew Dixon repeats her allegation, first published in The New York Times, that Simmons would routinely come into offices where she was and expose himself. Later in 1995, she alleged, he raped her in his downtown Manhattan apartment. Dixon says she quit soon after, found a new dream job working for music mogul, L.A. Reid, but allegedly was harassed by him, too, before she quit that job.
Simmons has forcefully denied the allegations and said all his sexual relations have been consensual. Reid has apologized if his words or actions were “misinterpreted.”
The film lays out the history of the criminalization of black men. That contributes to the reluctance of victims to go public about sexual misconduct, particularly by men who have been able to overcome the disadvantages of race and socioeconomic circumstances to gain unimaginable success, several commentators say in the doc.
The film features compelling accounts by Dixon and other Simmons accusers. It describes the difficult space that black women find themselves in when it comes to naming black male abusers. The voices they have featured are excellent. Kierna Mayo (a former boss of mine who has been on the hip-hop music scene for decades) knew some of the accusers personally and talks about the complicated, at times anti-female, culture in hip-hop. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, also is featured.
That combined with the fear that many women have about speaking up — the constant self-questioning about what they did to contribute to such a violation — makes for a complicated entry point.
Still, the film feels incomplete. Winfrey says more reporting is needed. And she’s correct. Specifically, there are few male voices. A former A&R exec speaks out and a former attorney speaks out, both black men.
That’s it. Missing are the voices of artists — those who Dixon helped make famous, helped earn Grammy nominations, helped sell millions of records — other music execs, industry leaders and so on. Of course, that’s part of the issue this documentary speaks to: the problematic culture of protecting or removing “threats” (women who Simmons is accused of targeting) as opposed to dealing directly with the accused assailant.
Certainly, the women appear believable and their stories, timelines and the consequences for their careers, and in at least one case, their lives (one of the accusers tried to OD on sleep medication after her alleged assault) feel truthful.
But the public back-and-forth between the producers and Winfrey right before its Sundance premiere isn’t an ideal situation for whomever wants to bid on this film after its premiere.