On the Record (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Another harrowing #MeToo era documentary

Documentary film “On the Record” is often chilling and devastating as listening to several female survivors who were sexually assaulted or abused by a man who is still regarded as one of the most influential figures in the American hip-hop music industry. Through their harrowing testimonies, the documentary illuminates not only the deep misogyny rooted inside the American hip-hop music industry but also the old history of the toxic cultural/social oppression on sexually abused African American females, and it surely reminds us that we still need to listen more to millions of survivors out there.

In late 2017, Russell Simmons, who has been mainly known as the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, was accused of sexual abuse and assault by several female survivors who finally decided to step forward in public via major media reports, and the documentary mainly focuses on one of these female survivors. Her name is Drew Dixon, and the documentary alternates between her life and career story and when she decided to tell all to a reporter of the New York Times in late 2017. Although she is willing tell us a lot in front of the camera, she still feels unsure and nervous about whether she can endure the consequence of accusing Simmons of sexual assault in public, and her growing anxiety is palpable to us even though she does not signify much in front of the camera.

As Dixon reminisces about her early years, we get to know what a bright and promising young woman she was with lots of potentials. Like her dear mother who was incidentally the mayor of Washington D.C., young Dixon loved and enjoyed music by all her heart, and, not so surprisingly, she subsequently decided to go to New York City around the early 1990s for diving into the rapidly growing hip-hop music industry in the city.

Thanks to her spirit, intelligence, and diligence, it did not take much time for Dixon to be noticed by Simmons, who had just established that legendary record company of his at that point. Once she began to work in the Artists and repertoire (A&R) division of his record company as a new young executive producer, she was tasked with a number of big projects including a certain famous hip-hop documentary and the accompanying album, and some of you may be surprised to learn that she was the one who handled a certain milestone hit from Method Man and Mary J. Bilge.

After a number of big successful hits, it seemed that the sky was the only limit for Dixon’s music producer career, but her blossoming potential was irreversibly shattered by the very man responsible for her initial successes. When Simmons started to show very inappropriate behaviors to her, Dixon chose to put up with his loathsome indecency because that was exactly what she was expected to do, and then there came a terrible moment she does not remember that well. Once she belatedly realized that Simmons set her up, it was already too late for her, and she still feels very uncomfortable as remembering how her mind understandably went blank while her body was sexually violated by him.

Dixon told about this atrocious experience to a few friends and colleagues of hers later, but she eventually walked away from the Def Jam Recordings and then moved to Arista Records. Things looked better for her there at first, and she continued to produce more hits, but then the circumstance was quickly reversed with the arrival of a new boss who was not so different from Simmons. When she firmly refused his vile approach, this prick retaliated on her in many petty ways, and he even blocked her from recruiting Kanye West and John Legend during their early career years.

While Dixon was still feeling conflicted about her allegation against Simmons, several more African American women including Sil Lai Abrams and Sherri Hines came out in public for revealing what he committed to them respectively, and several experts interviewed for the documentary explain to us a bit on how many African American women sexually abused or assaulted by African American men can still be easily silenced. Besides their shame and trauma, they also usually have to deal with the possibility of contributing more to that racist image of sexually aggressive African American men, and they can be deemed as sort of traitors by their own African American communities, who are mostly concerned with maintaining the clean-cut public image of African American men and their longtime suffering. The documentary exemplifies this via the public plights of Desiree Washington and Anita Hill in the 1990s, and the injustices inflicted on them somehow reminded me of when Spike Lee recently chose to support and stand by Nate Parker, whose acting/filmmaking career was almost finished when it belatedly turned out that he was brought to a trial for allegedly raping a young woman many years ago.

Although Simmons still exerts considerable influence even at this point (It is possible that he was involved in one way or another with the sudden departure of Oprah Winfrey, who was initially the executive producer of the documentary, from the production of the documentary when it was about to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year), Dixon and other survivors do not flinch at all, and one of the most poignant moments in the documentary is when she and two other survivors come to have a moment of solidarity together. In addition, Dixon also finds new strength for restarting her life and career, and it is touching to see how she and several other survivors appearing in the documentary have been moving on with their respective lives during recent years.

“On the Record” is directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who previously gave us “The Invisible War” (2012) and “The Hunting Ground” (2015). In my humble opinion, these three good documentaries powerfully work together as a sobering trilogy examining the festering rape culture in three different fields, and they will be certainly more relevant to us considering the ongoing changes brought out by the #MeToo era. Yes, there should be more changes for gender right and equality, but ladies will not be silent anymore no matter what will happen next.

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