On the Record: A #MeToo documentary about hip-hop producer Russell Simmons

On the Record follows Drew Dixon as she makes the decision to go to the New York Times with sexual misconduct allegations against Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. Photograph: Sundance Film Festiva
Directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick have always tried ‘to do right by’ the victims in their films. In their latest, which examines sexual abuse in the hip-hop music industry, they felt that responsibility intensely

In the mid-1990s, Drew Dixon had everything going for her. The bright, articulate daughter of two African-American politicians – her mother, Sharon Pratt, was the mayor of Washington DC between 1991 and the 1995 – Dixon moved to New York after graduating from Stanford, where she soon befriended Biggie and took to hip-hop, a genre she felt combined her two favourite things: music and activism. She was thrilled to land a job as an A&R executive at Russell Simmons’s Def Jam records.

“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” she recalls. “It was my dream job.” At Def Jam she assembled the soundtrack for the 1995 documentary The Show and helped produce hit songs with artists such as Tupac Shakur. She teamed Method Man with Mary J Blige for the much-loved mash-up I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.

Back in the office, however, there was months of sexual harassment from Simmons, her boss and the man she considered to be the “king of hip-hop”. She rebuffed his advances, and rationalised his behaviours (comparing them to a “tragic ADD puppy dog who I had to keep retraining”) until the night Simmons allegedly raped her. He denies this and 18 similar accusations of sexual assault and harassment from other women; he has subsequently relocated to Bali, which does not have an extradition treaty with the US.

Dixon swiftly left Def Jam and went to work for Clive Davis at Arista, where she blossomed until LA Reid took over from Davis. He also, she claims, subjected her to harassment. He publicly berated her for attempting to sign a young Kanye West. He passed on John Legend. Feeling defeated, she left the music industry.

“Drew’s story reflects what our culture loses and has lost,” says Amy Ziering, the co-director of On the Record, a harrowing new documentary featuring Dixon and other Simmons accusers. “How many artists went undiscovered without her? Then take that story and you multiply it by millions – which is not an exaggeration. How many generations of women have we lost to abuse?

“This isn’t just about a glass ceiling or the patriarchy or only hiring men. How many women have self-exiled? How different would our society be if these women hadn’t been traumatised out of their industries, if they had been able to contribute at leadership levels? When they lose, we all lose.”

Former A&R executive Drew Dixon in On the Record. Photograph: HBO
Former A&R executive Drew Dixon in On the Record. Photograph: HBO

On the Record is the third film from Oscar-nominated film-makers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering to examine sexual abuse. It is the first of these documentaries made in the Me Too era. The seeds of that cultural shift were evident at the film’s inception in 2016, when Ziering was asked to be on the jury at Sundance and found herself sitting next to Harvey Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan.

“She said: 'You made The Hunting Ground? Have I got a story for you',” recalls Ziering. “We stayed in touch and we started investigating the entertainment industry. And that was quite a journey. Once we started looking at the entertainment industry as our next area of inquiry, very quickly people stopped talking to us and we couldn’t get any kind of funding or support. So we put it on hold. And then #Me Too happened and the phone started ringing. Stories started coming in.”

Even before #MeToo, the film-makers’ work was hugely impactful, although as Ziering notes, a decade ago, when they started work on The Invisible War, “the issue was so remote to the general population on their radar [they didn’t] even have the vocabulary to think about it or talk about it.”

When Lady Gaga went on stage at the Oscars with 50 survivors... all these women and men in Hollywood looking at those people standing up and saying: ‘this happened to me’

The Hunting Ground, their 2015 documentary about the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses, flagged the extent of campus rape and the inadequate responses of many colleges. The film’s theme song, Lady Gaga’s Til It Happens to You became the first song ever to be nominated at the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys in the same year and was introduced at the Academy Awards by Joe Biden.

The Invisible War, Dick and Ziering’s 2012 examination of military sexual trauma in the US military, prompted an immediate directive from the secretary of defense and led to hearings at the Senate and House armed services committee.

“We’ve developed a reputation over time,” says Dick. “Because people have seen how we treated the subject matter and how we worked with survivors in the past, it has created a greater and greater sense of trust. And people also saw the impact that the previous films had. The Invisible War led to the passing of 35 reforms that went through congress. And The Hunting Ground actually led to policy changes at hundreds, maybe even thousands, of schools. It has been played more than 3,000 times on campuses and every time it plays, it starts a discussion.

“I think that moment at the Academy Awards when Lady Gaga was nominated for best original song for The Hunting Ground. And she went on stage at the Oscars with 50 survivors, I think that was a very seminal moment because there were all these women and men in Hollywood looking at those people on stage standing up and saying: ‘this happened to me’. So when #MeToo finally broke, they had already seen people coming forward on a big stage at the Oscars.”

The afterlife of these earlier films has surprised the film-makers, not least when the US military adopted The Invisible War as a training film.

“I think that was certainly a huge surprise,” says Dick. “The military had a long unbroken history of denying this was a problem, of minimising it, and covering it up and of attacking the messenger. We fully expected that there would be an incredible attack on the film and on us. In many ways, the opposite happened. The secretary of defense changed policy immediately after seeing the film. It inspired five congressional hearings. We were at one of them [and] all these four-star generals praised the film. That was something that we never ever expected.

“With The Hunting Ground, it was a mixed bag. Some schools responded very positively and some fought back, some that you wouldn’t expect. Berkeley, for example, was one of the most recalcitrant in instituting change. Among the schools that we looked at in the film, it may have been the last one to actually show it on campus.”

Film-makers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. Photograph: Entertainment One
Film-makers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. Photograph: Entertainment One

On the Record follows Dixon in 2017, as she makes the decision to go on the record with sexual misconduct allegations in the New York Times. The film also follows the aftermath of that story, as Dixon follows responses on traditional and social media and, in unpacking past traumas, is forced to reconfigure herself.

“It was very important for us to use this film to show the impact of abuse in a much more visceral way,” says Ziering. “The heavy lifting we had to do on the earlier films was to get people to believe the people who come forward to report. But now in 2020, our culture has evolved so that we could take a more nuanced and refined look at trauma in a way that we haven’t before.”

“We’ve lived through the aftermath with the people we profiled,” adds Dick. “We know the challenges that people face very well. People come forward and there’s a story and others assume everything is resolved but it’s much, much more complex than that.”

During On the Record, there comes a moment when Dixon recounts the night when Simmons lured her into his apartment, ostensibly to listen to a CD. Other accusers in the film include Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, a member of the first all-female rap group, the Mercedes Ladies. Their stories are all complicated by issues of race. As Dixon notes: “For 22 years, I took it for the team.”

Other commentators, including hip-hop feminist Dr Joan Morgan, speak to the “cultural impossibility for black women to be raped”. Tarana Burke, who began the #MeToo movement in 2006, notes in the film, that “a lot of black women felt disconnected from Me Too initially”.

Oprah Winfrey, who was attached to On the Record as an executive producer, told the Associated Press that Simmons “attempted to pressure me” to leave the project. 50 Cent publicly chastised her, writing: “I don’t understand why Oprah is going after black men,” under a photo of Simmons and Winfrey he posted on Instagram.

Two weeks before On the Record premiered at Sundance, Winfrey bowed out of the project, citing “creative differences”, and scuttling the distribution deal the film had with Apple TV (HBO soon snapped it up). Ziering remains grateful for her contribution nonetheless

“I also want to credit Ms Winfrey as a collaborator on the film,” she says. “The very first time we met at a hotel in New York, she said you know, I’ve worked on this issue for years and I’ve never gotten people to understand the long-term impact, so whatever project we collaborate on to do that. That was her mandate as well.”

In 2018, Ziering and Dick made The Bleeding Edge, a terrifying look at the $400 billion medical device industry for Netflix. For the moment, however, they are determined to continue working with abuse survivors. As Ziering notes: “Every film generates more people reaching out to us and we feel responsible to them.”

“I don’t know even how to articulate this,” she says. “It is what it is . . . it’s exhilarating and horrible at the same time. You are like a moth to a flame. You are raging. You can’t turn away. And there’s an incredible, deep connection to the subject and the responsibility to do right by them. That’s why we keep going. It’s hard. You take a lot of punches. And you don’t come out the same after each film.”

On the Record is available on demand from June 26th.

Rape Crisis Help can be contacted at 1800 778888; rapecrisishelp.ie