No Oprah? No problem: 'On the Record' Doc Gets Standing Ovations at Sundance

Russell Simmons
Rodrigo Varela/WireImage

Russell Simmons

The 2020 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is unofficially the year of the woman. More than 50% of the movies are directed by females. The opening night selection was the Taylor Swift tell-all Miss Americana. And on Saturday (Jan. 25), the searing #MeToo documentary On the Record -- in which several women accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault and misconduct -- brought an audience to its feet. Twice.

“We are super-proud to be here and grateful,” co-director Amy Ziering told the audience at the premiere. She also thanked Sundance for “standing strong and never blinking.” Indeed, with all the controversy surrounding the documentary in recent weeks, it was unclear whether it would ever see the light of day -- much less premiere up in the mountains of Park City, Utah, on its scheduled date.

First Oprah Winfrey, a co-executive producer, withdrew her credit and support from the film on Jan. 10 because she felt it needed more thorough reporting. (She later admitted that Simmons had asked her to do so, but insisted that his request did not affect her decision.) Ziering and co-director Kirby Dick admitted in subsequent interviews that they were blindsided by her exit. Soon, the new streaming service Apple TV Plus pulled its distribution. But Sundance never wavered in its support.

On the Record revolves around Drew Dixon, the daughter of two Washington, D.C., politicians who took her dream job in the A&R department at Def Jam Recordings following graduation from Stanford University in the early 1990s. She looked up to her mentor and label head Simmons (“he was the king of hip-hop”) and rose through the ranks. Then, one late night in 1995, she explains in harrowing detail how he tricked her into going up to his downtown NYC apartment, grabbed her and raped her on his bed. Her recounting is woven in with 2017 footage as she frets about the repercussions of coming forward with her story to The New York Times.

She did. Nearly 20 other women followed suit with their own allegations of sexual assault or harassment at the hands of Simmons, many of whom re-share their experiences in the documentary (and appeared on stage with Dixon and the filmmakers following the screening). These women include Sherri Hines, a member of the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, who alleged that Simmons raped her in his office in the early 1980s; and former Def Jam exec Sil-Lai Abrams, who said that her rape in 1994 left her so traumatized that she swallowed 18 sleeping pills in hopes of ending her turmoil.

(Simmons, now living in Bali to avoid extradition, has denied any wrongdoing. He declined to be interviewed for the film, but his statement of denial is flashed on the screen in the closing moments.)

Dick and Ziering, whose previous documentary The Hunting Ground examined the epidemic of rape on college campuses, were greeted with a standing ovation before the film even started. In the crowd: CNN President Jeff Zucker (the network distributed The Hunting Ground) and actress Rosanna Arquette, one of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and an outspoken supporter of #MeToo. She stood up during the post-screening Q&A -- after the second standing ovation -- to salute the women. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.

On the Record also examines the difficult role that black women play in the movement. Several female historians and journalists note that women are often hesitant about telling their stories because they don’t want to come off as traitors to black men and their communities. They’re also targets of public scorn. Dixon says she was reluctant to speak out for years because she had vivid memories of how Anita Hill was treated when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. Same for Desiree Washington, who accused Mike Tyson of rape. (The film shows a retro clip of Barbara Walters grilling Washington about her poor judgment.)

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, an attorney and civil rights advocate, alluded to the above examples and the racial divide in the post-Weinstein era during the Q&A. “You’ve seen this film but this question is will anyone else see it?” she said. “Whatever can be brought to bear to make sure that this doesn’t get snuffed out -- think of all the history of what has already happened and say ‘never again.’”

When one member of the audience questioned why the film is directed by two white people though it’s about black women accusing a black man of rape, Dixon was quick to defend and explain: “A lot of this is about power 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 story. And some of those people are filmmakers.”

“But nobody told our story,” she continued, “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 ... to me, this is why the filmmakers are white because they don’t have the same vulnerability. Thank god they listened.”

Dixon resigned from Def Jam in 1995, moved over to Atlantic Records and experienced great success. But after Clive Davis left, she said that new boss L.A. Reid harassed her and, in retaliation of her spurned advances, refused to sign her discoveries Kanye West and John Legend. She ultimately retreated from the music industry altogether and went to Harvard Business School. (Reid denies the allegations.

But she says her life has changed for the better since she finally told her story. “I never thought this day would come,” she said.

On the Record was still seeking distribution as of press time.