‘On the Record’ Film Review: Wrenching Documentary Offers Black Women a Voice in the #MeToo Movement

Sundance 2020: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s controversial new film illustrates how black women often remain silent about sexual misconduct so as to remain supportive of black men

On the Record
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Martyna Starosta.

“When is the music industry finally going to have its #MeToo moment?” That’s been the question that people have been debating ever since Tarana Burke’s movement escalated just a few short years ago, although one could argue that white recording artists like Kesha and Taylor Shift have certainly put a spotlight on the issue. The film and TV industries have also received their reckoning, but that too has mostly centered on white survivors speaking out.

The question that an alarmingly fewer number of people seem to be asking right now is: How have black women in music been impacted by #MeToo? But as directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s searing documentary,”On the Record” explains, that answer is complicated and deeply rooted in black history.

The filmmakers take a rather unconventional approach to the more common #MeToo confessions we’ve seen before, choosing instead to open their narrative not with a sense of consternation but with an expression of cultural love, which is also consequently baked into the silencing of black women. Through voiceover and face-to-face interviews, we get the story of Drew Dixon, a music exec whose career catapulted with a job in the A&R department at Def Jam Records, Russell Simmons’ pride and joy.

In her own words, Dixon begins her narrative with leaving her native Washington D.C. for New York City. She was a staunch black advocate whose passion for hip-hop started at a young age, strengthening as she immersed herself in the lyrics that reveal the rage, trauma and oppression of predominantly black men like Biggie Smalls, Public Enemy and NWA. It’s that sense of compassion that fueled her desire to embed herself in the world professionally and help uplift artists like Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Junior M.A.F.I.A.

Dixon first ascended in the hip-hop ranks in the early ’90s, the era when the genre had reached its pinnacle, chart-wise, when everyone — no matter their age or race — was bumping its signature bass out of their sunroofs. It was also a time when misogyny came to the forefront of the verses, exacerbated by the birth of graphic music videos. But as the soundtrack of this period (impressively spliced together in the film by Mikki Itzigsohn and Willa Yudell) indicates, those themes that were laced with hatred and violence toward women were effortlessly masked by some electrifying beats.

Dick and Ziering impressively capture this sentiment, juxtaposing Dixon’s fond account with clips from the aforementioned videos and footage of her hobnobbing with music’s finest. The film’s natural, straightforward cinematography even illuminates Dixon’s face lighting up as she remembers these times and her own indisputable talent.

“On the Record” masterfully shows how that same affection can easily be used as “catnip,” as Dixon herself describes at one horrifying point in the film, for men like Simmons, her superior at the time, who prey on “skinny, tall bitches” like her who have an undying commitment to their craft and race.

IItzigsohn and Yudell’s once jumping soundtrack gradually fuses into a frightening arrangement as Dixon shares, for the first time publicly in 20+ years (as also detailed in a 2017 New York Times article), her devastating account of when, she said, Simmons raped her in his bedroom. Through footage of the outside of the music master’s New York City apartment and darkly lit boudoir photography, we hear the gut-wrenching details of her accusation.

What’s especially visceral about Dick and Ziering’s film is how it embraces the ideology of black female degradation. Dixon, whose story grounds the film, even admits to how she participated in squelching her own truth: She wanted to uplift black men like Simmons, not tear them down, because of how much they’ve been through and are still experiencing in this broken world. She felt her story would be looked upon as her turning her back on her race, like how Anita Hill and Desiree Washington were treated when they came forward about Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson, respectively. Footage of both women, two of the few black survivors who have publicly shared their stories, are featured in the film.

Dixon was so disturbed by what she said happened to her that she later abandoned the music industry altogether — along with fellow Simmons-accusers, including Sil Lai Abrams and Jenny Lumet (also interviewed in the film) — and “On the Record” does more than help her reclaim her voice. It also brilliantly crystallizes how black women like Dixon, allies of black men and lovers of hip-hop, can so easily be taken advantage of by the same people they passionately want to celebrate. “I loved hip-hop,” Dixon says, which hits like a ton of bricks. “I loved Russell Simmons.”

Simmons has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.

The filmmakers (with the help of Dixon) go back all the way to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when black women were raped and impregnated in captivity. In doing so, they trace the history of black women being used as sexual objects, even as the black men they accused found platforms for themselves in music and other spaces.

Journalists like Bim Adewunmi and Kierna Mayo and cultural critics like Joan Morgan further contextualize how the hyper-sexualization of black women has also led to them being disbelieved and consequentially devalued, an important nuance that has not been interrogated enough in the #MeToo era that is dominated by white women.

“On the Record” is much more than an exposé on the alleged crimes of Simmons, lL.A. Reid, and so many other men in music whose accusers have yet to step forward. It does what so little of the dialogue has managed to do: implore audiences to embrace black female survivors and to understand the cultural and painful dilemmas they continue to endure along their avid fight to heal the wounds of the entire black race. Though it’s at times a gutting watch, it’s ultimately about hope and sisterhood.