‘On the Record’: Underrated doc tackles the misogyny Black women face in the #MeToo era
Drew Dixon in On the Record

The so-called godfather of hip-hop, Russell Simmons, has made the news recently after being publicly accused by his ex-wife and children of verbal abuse. In light of these allegations, it seems only fitting to revisit the underrated (and perhaps deliberately buried?) 2020 documentary that centers on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against the controversial hip-hop mogul.

On the Record is a documentary that focuses on the stories of Black women attempting to find their voices, and some sense of justice, in the era of #MeToo. It wrangles with the intersectionality of race and gender when it comes to Black women being believed and supported in the face of harassment and sexism. It isn’t a comfortable film to watch, but a necessary one when tackling the ongoing #MeToo movement and the search for true accountability from those in power who abuse their status.

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, On the Record focuses on a number of women connected to the music industry and their experiences with Simmons. The film puts these stories in the context of the early 1990s when hip-hop and rap music was beginning to enter the mainstream.

Simmons, the co-founder of the music label Def Jam Recordings, would emerge as a leader in spotlighting upcoming talent and putting them on the airwaves. He would make millions of dollars in this endeavor and gain a significant amount of influence. Yet, as On the Record alleges, his reign of power was more like a reign of terror for the women who worked with and around him.

On the Record makes it clear from the beginning, through interviews with Black women activists and historians, that the story isn’t about Russell Simmons as some lone villain leaning into debauchery. Rather, Simmons’ ability to allegedly get away with his behavior for so long was fostered by a society that oppresses women (and Black women in particular), and a music industry that leaned into ideas of misogyny and objectification. The film also grapples with the double-edged sword of Black women as a group being told they have to uplift “the culture” while staying silent regarding their abuse.

While On the Record features interviews with over 20 women who have accused Simmons of sexual harassment and/or assault, including Sil Lai Abrams, Sherri Hines, Jenny Lumet, and Alexia Norton Jones, it spends a majority of its screen time with Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive at Def Jam. Dixon claims that Simmons raped her back in the 90s when she worked for him at Def Jam.

The audience is made to witness Dixon finally going on record with the New York Times over twenty years later regarding her alleged assault. Dixon’s story is a crucial one as it relates to the important role she played in putting out some of the most popular artists and records in hip-hop history.

Interestingly enough, many people may not even know who Dixon is were it not for her accusing Simmons of assault. This fact alone shows the ramifications suffered by Black women on their jobs when pursuing their careers.

Dixon was a young upstart who had a trajectory to become a heavy hitter in the music industry. She’s shown to have the skills and know-how to really make an impact.

Dreams dashed

Yet, as Dixon explains, her dreams were dashed in her mid-twenties because she wasn’t allowed to be anything other than an object to the men she worked for. It’s a tale we’ve heard about often since the #MeToo movement began.

Still from On the Record

Young women being pushed out of their industry of choice due to the onslaught of harassment and sexism. We mainly heard this in regards to actresses in Hollywood films, but in this case we see that this behavior stretches to all walks of work life.

Through Dixon we are made to grapple with what is lost culturally when abuse of power goes unchecked. Individually these women are affected, but as a society we potentially lose out on what these women could have accomplished had they been allowed to flourish in their professions.

What is also dealt with is the fact that as a Black woman, Dixon and other survivors of assault, felt like they weren’t allowed to tell their stories for fear of bringing “the culture” down. On the Record doesn’t mince words in regards to what place women of color—especially Black women assaulted by Black men—have been afforded in the #MeToo movement. Dixon herself laments in the film, “As a black woman. I didn’t know if this [#MeToo] applied.”

It’s a touchy subject to say the least. When dealing with the topic of race and racism in the world, Black women have often been at the forefront of the movement, often advocating for Black men who have been the victims of police violence and over incarceration.

Yet, when it comes to addressing the racism and sexism Black women experience in the system, along with the intra-racial violence that can occur towards them, there can be pressure to not air the race’s “dirty laundry.” This isn’t a new phenomenon. As we’ve learned, even during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s Black women had to deal with sexism and discrimination within the movement itself.

Originally On the Record was executive=produced by Oprah Winfrey with a trajectory to premiere on Apple+TV. At the last minute, after an onslaught of threats and hostility online (including alleged calls from Simmons to Winfrey to do away with the film) Winfrey withdrew from the finished project, citing “creative differences” and calling into question the stories of some of the women.

Mind you, the stories of all the victims had been vetted by credible journalists in both the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter. Fortunately, the doc would eventually find a home on the streaming service Max. Yet, even the struggle for this film to see the light of day is a testament to the silencing Black women can endure when attempting to tell their stories.

There are a number of themes tackled in On the Record, some more in depth than others. This includes misogyny, racial discrimination, the history of slavery, and the question of light-skin privilege, just to name a few.

It’s an ambitious endeavor for one hour and thirty-five minutes, yet the results are mostly positive. Coming out in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic did no favors for the film, but it’s never too late for audiences to view such a powerful documentary.

After all, this is still an ongoing case regarding Simmons, not to mention the relevancy of Black women continuing to find their voices when speaking about their trauma and resilience.

On the Record is currently streaming on Max.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.