Perhaps no other documentary filmmakers have investigated the sexual abuse of women as relentlessly as Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Their cogent and moving “On the Record,” about Drew Dixon, the former music executive who accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault, marks their third film on the subject. Like the others — “The Invisible War” (2012) and “The Hunting Ground” (2015) — it is difficult but essential viewing.
Dixon fell in love with hip-hop as a kid, not just for the music itself but, as she tells Dick and Ziering, because she saw it as “a Black movement empowering people who were otherwise lost or overlooked.” She decided to pursue a career in A&R (Artists and Repertoire) in New York City, discovering and developing new talent for record companies. By her early 20s she had established herself as an up-and-coming player in the business. Then in 1992 Russell Simmons, the legendary cofounder of Def Jam Recordings and her idol and role model, offered her a job.
Success came quickly, as Dixon helped put together hit records by Method Man, Mary J. Blige, Santana, Lauryn Hill, and others. It was a dream come true, though it involved tolerating the misogyny of some of the music and videos (all in the pop music tradition, as the filmmakers illustrate with clips from songs by Tom Jones, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles).
More distressing was Simmons’s unwanted sexual attentions, which she rationalized as part of the job and tolerated until 1995, when he allegedly raped her. She resigned, got a similar position at Arista Records and once again excelled, working on records with Aretha Franklin, Santana, and Whitney Houston. But in 2000, L.A. Reid took over as head of the company and began to subject Dixon to sexual overtures. She saw a familiar pattern unfolding and quit the music business for good.
The filmmakers pick up the story in real time in 2017, when Dixon is torn about being interviewed by The New York Times. The #MeToo movement has inspired many women to come forward. Harvey Weinstein and other show business power brokers have been accused, including filmmaker Brett Ratner, who had been linked with Simmons. But Dixon dreads the prospect of reliving the trauma in public and the subsequent inevitable hostility her testimony will arouse, which has been the experience of all such accusers.
And, as this film makes clear, Black women who have been assaulted by Black men in positions of power are burdened by additional pressures. They know that accusations by Black women are often dismissed as less consequential because they are considered, consciously or implicitly, as victims less deserving of respect. And they see the history of violence suffered by Black men suspected of sexually assaulting white women and are aware of the image perpetuated of Black men as sexual predators and so feel a need to protect their assailants and remain silent.
Despite these powerful reservations Dixon went ahead and cooperated with the Times in it devastating 3,600-word article documenting Simmons’s crimes. To date 20 women have come forward with similar accusations.
Now, 2½ years later, Simmons has moved to Bali, Indonesia, which has no extradition agreement with the United States.
In 2017 L.A. Reid was forced to resign as CEO of Sony’s Epic records because of accusations of sexual misconduct. He has since started his own music label and has received $75 million from financial backers.
Neither has been prosecuted for any crimes.
Dixon, meanwhile, has lost more than 20 years of doing the work she loved and at which she was superbly gifted. And we have all lost the artistic contributions she and the other women whose careers have been cut short by sexual abuse might have made.
“On the Record” can be streamed on HBO Max, starting May 27.
Go to www.hbomax.com/on-the-record.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.