You would think it was a world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival with multiple standing ovations for Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary On the Record, about the women who spoke out against music mogul Russell Simmons, accusing him of sexual assault.
In the wake of Oprah Winfrey removing her name from the film as executive producer, and thus shelving its Apple TV+ distribution deal, an audience member tonight at the Sundance Film Festival premiere posed some tough questions to the accusers and the experts onstage standing alongside Dick and Ziering: “Do you think some of this push-back, even though it’s a story of black women, also has to do with the fact that the producers are Anglo and white?”
Drew Dixon, the former A&R exec who worked for both Simmons and L.A. Reid, both of whom she accused of sexual assault, told the audience in The Marc Theatre in Park City: “I’d love to say something about that. A lot of this is about power, right? And ecosystems of power. And all of us, have kept our stories to ourselves for decades and there are people within that ecosystem who knew our stories. Some of those people are filmmakers. It’s an entertainment industry story after all, right? But nobody told our story. Because the people who knew our story were subject to the same ecosystem. And to me, this is where allies matter. Allies who are not subject to that same dynamic. They have traction that they can use to pull you forward, centering you with deference, which they did; to tell a story because they’re not subject to the incoming, that even powerful black people are subject to. So, to me, this is why the filmmakers are white. Because they don’t have the same vulnerability. And so, thank God. And then they listened, and they deferred and they learned and they centered us. So that’s what I would say.”
Sil Lai Abrams, a model who has also accused Simmons of assault, said: “There are people, like Drew said, in positions of power within the ecosystem who have turned away from me. I can’t speak for Sheri (Sher), Jenny (Lumet), Alexia (Norton Jones), Drew, anyone else that was also mentioned in the film or any black woman who has tried to come forward to those in her community and to express the pain and the trauma of what she’s been through.”
“I just want to stress that this was a collaborative effort from day one with all the people involved. And any representation that wasn’t the case is not an accurate representation of this narrative, of this story,” added Ziering.
“We are super grateful to everyone who gave us the power to tell this story and it wouldn’t be what it is, without that collection of voices you see on screen, that is much larger than the two white directors you see standing before you,” she added.
Dixon and Abrams were onstage tonight with accuser Sherri Hines, author/expert Joan Morgan, Shanita Hubbard, expert Kimberle Crenshaw, Kierna Mayo, Jamie Rogers, Amy Herdy and Sarah Newens.
There were several rounds of applause throughout the screening as the audience watched Dixon change from being quiet about her situation with Simmons (during her booming career as a music executive who made careers), to having the strength to speak out against him after seeing other women come forward in the #MeToo movement. “I couldn’t let them dangle in the wind,” she says in the film.
Apple TV+ and Winfrey’s loss will be another distributor’s gain here as buyers from Focus Features, Roadside Attractions, Amazon, CNN Films, IFC, Showtime, HBO Max and Netflix descended on The Marc tonight to get a look at what is arguably this fest’s hottest title.
It would be surprising not to see On the Record in next year’s Oscars conversation, especially given Dick and Ziering’s pedigree: The Hunting Ground earned an Oscar nom for the Diane Warren-Lady Gaga original song “Til It Happens to You,” with Dick and Ziering also Oscar-nominated in the feature doc category for 2012’s The Invisible War.
Winfrey spoke to the New York Times last week, and admitted she was pressured by Simmons and his supporters to distance herself from the pic, although she said that wasn’t ultimately why she bowed out. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey stated, noting that Simmons and unnamed “other people” questioned the veracity of Dixon in the film.
The media mogul said she asked director Ava DuVernay for her opinion about whether the doc appropriately captured hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women.
“She’s got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with,” DuVernay said to the Times. “So if she walks away from the film, she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film, then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
Dixon told the Times, “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.” Simmons has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. He has not been charged with any crime.
Following her NYT interview, Winfrey appeared on CBS This Morning on Tuesday, re-emphasizing how her decision was not based on anything Simmons said. She also explained that she believed the project needed to be pulled from its Sundance slot in the Documentary Premieres section, and told the filmmaking team that if that didn’t happen, she would exit. “I had said to them, ‘Houston, I think we have a problem here,’ because new information had come forward,” she said.
“I don’t care about awards — I just care about getting it right, and I think there’s some inconsistencies in the stories that we need to look at. I wanted the context of the story to be broadened, I wanted more women brought into the story,” said Winfrey on CBS This Morning.
Deadline first broke the story that Dick and Ziering were staying the course by taking On the Record to Sundance despite Winfrey’s withdrawal.
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