In 2017, America was consumed with the tidal wave of the #MeToo movement that swept through the entertainment industry and the corporate world. Powerful and well-known men were accused of sexual assault and other violations by hundreds of women–from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to Charlie Rose to Brett Ratner–America was finally coming to grips with a dark “secret” that had lurked behind the scenes for decades. And now, HBO Max’s “On the Record“ has given voice to a sub-sect of victims whose voices often go unheard and unnoticed–black women.
The issue of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry goes all the way back to the early days of Hollywood with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and allegations of misdeeds against numerous early Hollywood stars. The Me Too movement started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, began to raise awareness of the perverseness of sexual abuse and assault in society. After the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light in 2017, the #MeToo movement was co-opted into a broader movement. But this movement had one major issue, it largely ignored the plight of black women in their quest to tell their stories.
Directed and produced by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (“The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground”), “On the Record” aims to place a megaphone to the voices of the black women who oftentimes are either ignored, pressured into silence or just flat out not believed. And it succeeds in doing so in a moving and profound way that takes the viewer on a journey into the life of a victim grappling with the decision to come forward and the effects of doing so not just on herself, but countless other women who look just like her (remember Anita Hill?). First reported by the New York Times, this immersive experience presents the powerful and haunting story of music executive Drew Dixon as she comes to terms with becoming one of the first women of color to come forward and publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault.
The film gives us an up-close look at the turmoil and tension Dixon goes through in the days leading up to her putting her story out in the public and accusing someone she used to consider a mentor and friend–and he just happened to be one of the biggest names in the music industry, a legend. The team behind “On the Record” does a superb job of really giving us a glimpse of who Dixon was, and is, through first-person interviews with friends, colleagues, and Dixon herself along with archival photos and video. Dixon was a young, creative and talented music executive on the rise who was poised to become a powerhouse within her field–she had the world at her fingertips. As head of A&R at Def Jam, one of the most iconic hip-hop labels, she was immersed in hip-hop culture and the fast-paced and often cut-through entertainment industry. Where misogyny over dope beats becomes tolerable. Within the black community and in a broader context, the world of hip-hop has often left people at odds because of its sometimes overt misogyny, sexism, and objectification of women while also serving as a mirror and realistic and brutal reflection of the plight of black people in American society. It is at odds because hip-hop did not invent misogyny–the white patriarchal power structure did–and hip-hop is just mimicking that to cover up the pain and struggle.
After the incident with Simmons and a later encounter with another music heavyweight, L.A. Reid, Dixon gave up a promising career and essentially her true self as she retreated into herself and a world that tried to keep her as far removed from the terrible secret she harbored. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum after the Weinstein accusers came forward, an accuser also came forward on Simmons, but he denied the allegation and it was pretty much swept under the rug. That, amongst other things was a catalyst for Dixon coming forward because she felt she could not leave her “sister” blowing in the wind with the public not believing her. From there, the documentary intelligently goes into the back story behind women of color oftentimes not wanting to come forward because of a stigma that has been embedded in the culture since the time of slavery and not wanting to be seen as a “traitor” to their race because the black male in America already has too many factors stacked against them. Through interviews with cultural critics, journalists, and activists (even Burke herself) “On the Record” dissects and analyzes the issues of class, race, and sex within the movement and sexual assault in general in a historical context and more explicitly within the music industry.
The team behind the documentary does a delicate and evocative job of really exploring the psychological and cultural obstacles that Dixon must overcome on her path to speaking up. In an industry where sexual harassment is baked into the culture and it seems like sex is often the price of admission, hard work, talent, and work ethic are often not enough for women to make it to the higher echelons of their field. Women repeatedly have to deal with inappropriate behaviors and have to find ways of coping with and ignoring or managing around it for the sake of their career and reputations.
“On the Record” does an immensely important job of trying to shine a spotlight on the intersectionality at play for sexual assault victims of color. As women, they feel they must stand with the movement and support their “sisters.” As black women, they are torn because they fell they must stand with their culture and protect black men because the world around them doesn’t and their “sisters” oftentimes don’t really have their backs. The team also does a deeply moving job of trying to deal with the inner turmoil and lasting trauma that is still visible in the telling of her story, and the story of the others that Dixon inspired to come forward. The profound moment comes when Dixon realizes that she has to tell her story for others, not just for herself, and in the end she comes full circle with her past and her passions as forges her way back into the music industry that loved so much.
The filmmakers should be commended for letting the stories of these women of color be the focus of this film. It is the quiet moments of introspection from Dixon that lets the heaviness and consequences of not only her actions but the film itself sink in. The documentary does sprinkle in the stories of the white women who came forward to accuse Simmons at the very end, but they made a deliberate and urgent point of letting the black voices be heard first and the loudest because we should believe them too! The film interweaves the catharsis of the music in with the historical and cultural relevance of the subject matter. In the end, Dick and Ziering’s “On the Record” is a well-done, thought-out, searing, and enlightening exposé on the plight of women of color to have their voices heard and stories believe with the movement and society in general–urging viewers to #BelieveHer too!