There’s an elegant, almost poetic silence to one of the most compelling scenes of “On the Record,” a powerful new documentary about sexual violence that knows just when to dial down to a hushed quiet.
In the early morning darkness of Dec. 13, 2017, former music executive Drew Dixon walks to a coffee shop and buys the New York Times. On the front page is the story in which she and two others accuse the powerful hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, her former boss, of rape. Dixon examines the article, carefully folds the paper back up, puts on a wool cap as if for protection — and crumples into silent tears.
They are tears of fear, surely, about the ramifications of going public — but also, clearly, relief. It feels as if the poison of a decades-old toxic secret is literally seeping out of her.
“It saved my life,” she now says of that decision.
“On the Record,” by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, provides a searingly intimate portrayal of the agonizing process of calculating whether to go public. Beyond that, it shines an overdue light on the music industry, where sexual harassment is “just baked into the culture,” in the words of Sil Lai Abrams, another Simmons accuser featured in the film.
Most importantly, it puts a spotlight on women of color, and the unique and painful burden they often face in coming forward.
The project also has been associated with controversy, of course, due to Oprah Winfrey’s well-documented withdrawal as executive producer just before the Sundance Film Festival, scuttling a distribution deal with Apple. Winfrey later acknowledged Simmons had called her and waged a pressure campaign, but said that wasn’t why she bailed.
But the film has moved on. It opened at Sundance anyway to cheers and two emotional standing ovations, and was soon picked up by HBO Max, where it premieres Wednesday.
For Dixon, vindication at Sundance was sweet.
“Just standing there, on our own, and realizing that we were enough,” she said in an interview last week along with Abrams and accuser Sherri Hines, of the premiere. “That our courage was enough. That none of us waffled. None of us buckled. That we were strong enough to defend ourselves and each other.”
Less than two years earlier, Dixon had been plagued by doubt. She’d expected that the film, which began shooting before she decided to go public, would be a general look at #MeToo and the music industry. But then the directors wanted to focus more on her journey.
“The idea of being blackballed by the black community was really scary,” she says. “But I also felt this pressure, this responsibility to be brave, to highlight the experience of black women as survivors. The opportunity might never come again.”
Dixon was in her 20s when she got her dream job at Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings. The daughter of two Washington, D.C. politicians — her mother, Sharon Pratt, was mayor — she attended Stanford University, then moved to New York to join the exciting world of hip-hop.
As her star rose at Def Jam, she assumed that would immunize her from what she describes as Simmons’ constant harassment. He would come into her office, lock the door and expose himself.
But he wasn’t violent. Until the night in 1995 when, she says, he lured her to his apartment with the excuse of a demo CD she needed to hear. He told her to get it from the bedroom, she says, and then came in wearing only a condom, and raped her.
Simmons has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.
The film weaves together Dixon’s and multiple other accusations against Simmons with key voices of women of color like Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, and law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw.
“A lot of black women felt disconnected from #MeToo initially,” Burke says. “They felt, ‘that’s great that this sister is out there and we support her, but this movement is not for US.'”
When black women do seek to come forward, they risk not only not being believed, but being called traitors to their community, both Burke and Dixon explain.
“There’s this added layer in the black community that we have to contend with, like, ‘Oh you’re gonna put THIS before race?'” says Burke. “You let this thing happen to you, now we have to pay for it as a race? And we’re silenced even more.’
Dick and Ziering, who’ve made several films about sexual assault, say they saw it as essential to go beyond the current #MeToo discussion and focus on the experience of black women.
“Now you can come forward — but what about women of color? What do they face?” asks Ziering. “There are so many impediments.”
For Dixon, coming forward was clearly worth it. It’s more complicated for Abrams. Even as the audience was applauding at Sundance, Abrams, who attempted suicide after her alleged rape by Simmons, was weeping next to her young adult son, worrying about him as he learned the full details for the first time, she says.
Abrams also says that “as a result of coming forward, my career has stalled. Everything just dried up.”
Dixon says it remains to be seen whether she will be punished within the music industry. She says she recently was up for a job, things were going well, and suddenly all went quiet. “They must have Googled me,” she says.
But she feels, most importantly, like she rescued a part of herself: her creativity, her drive, her very sense of who she is.
For more than 20 years, she says, “I had banished the young woman who came to New York City prepared to work really hard in a man’s game, to prove she could do it, but not expecting that she would be raped.”
“In order to banish the pain I banished part of her light,” she says. “When I said it out loud, those parts of me lit up again.”
Her message to any other survivors out there — and she hopes they will come forward: “Facing it frees parts of yourself that you don’t even know you’ve missed.”