On the Record
Directed by Kirby Dick and
Amy Ziering ’83
Abusers don’t exist in vacuums: They require elaborate social systems to keep themselves powerful and protected while they progressively break down their victims. They rely on silent (or even encouraging) buy-in from the friends, relatives, employees and employers who enable their destructive behaviors. Someone else often knows. Someone else often assists.
Since the #MeToo movement gained ground in 2017, countless people have come forward to tell their personal stories of gendered harassment, sexual assault and intimate violence, and some have done so on screen. Before #MeToo, however, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Ziering ’83 devoted much of her career to uncovering these harrowing experiences, producing haunting investigative documentaries such as The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015). With her powerful HBO Max film On the Record, Ziering and co-director Kirby Dick dig further into the U.S. culture of sexual violence, this time exploring the nexus between the nation’s historical abuse of Black women and their marginalization within hip-hop.
On the Record zeroes in on Drew Dixon, a passionate former music industry executive who began her career at Def Jam Recordings in the early 1990s. Wunderkind Dixon, who was responsible for scouting and developing talent, discovered popular artists like Method Mad & Redman and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. But her time at Def Jam was cut short when, as she describes, the company’s godlike mogul Russell Simmons lured her into his apartment one night and raped her.
Dixon is one of nearly 20 women who have opened up about the harassment and violence they say they experienced at the hands of Simmons, who, in turn, has rebranded himself in recent years as a peaceful lifestyle guru. And she’s far from the only gifted and ambitious young woman whose professional success stalled because she refused a superior’s sexual advances. Simmons was so well-known as a “womanizer” that his colleagues initially demeaned Dixon when she started at Def Jam, presuming she was another one of his conquests. She recalls justifying to herself that Russell’s increasing sexual pressure was mere puerile persistence, thinking of him as a “tragic ADD puppy dog that I had to keep retraining.” Years later, she says, she would learn that this seemingly playful conduct was a calculated grooming tactic.
Ziering and co. follow Dixon as she processes the possibility of sharing her story with the press, fully aware of how this could have a devastating impact on her family and privacy. (For every word of public support survivors may receive, they often hear an equal amount of vitriol from those who denounce them as “sluts” or “attention-seekers.”) In between Dixon’s searing interviews and bittersweet scenes of her visiting her old haunts, the film features illuminating commentary from Black female scholars and cultural critics who contextualize her experiences.
Ziering smartly refrains from indicting hip-hop as a whole: it has seen enough moral panic for a lifetime.
Specifically, they trace the throughline from the historical kidnapping, rape and enslavement of African women by white men to how that abuse continues to be reified against Black women in some of rap’s more hypermasculine or misogynistic subcultures. As one journalist explains, once hip-hop entered the age of the music video, its imagery moved toward Eurocentric beauty standards and, effectively, became a “statement against the large majority of Black women, how we look and how we present.” They also discuss why Black women often refrain from voicing their pain: many of them fear perpetuating racist stereotypes about men in their communities. (Executive producer Oprah Winfrey mysteriously pulled her support and credit from the film, prompting some to suggest she was hoping to shield Simmons.)
Ziering smartly refrains from indicting hip-hop as a whole, a genre that has seen enough moral panic for a lifetime. Instead, she allows Black survivors and experts to speak for themselves about the musical culture that ignites them. I often wondered, however, why the documentarians chose to hyper-focus on Dixon, despite also including compelling interviews with other survivors, and questioned whether it’s because Dixon’s disarming and analytical clarity shines so brightly on camera. (“I was a physical device,” she explains, in just five words slamming us with the dehumanizing horror of rape.)
Frankly, though, I didn’t want to automatically relate to Dixon because she intellectualizes her trauma. I wanted her account to be enough.
Bahr is a film and TV critic.