“This emotional force keeps informing my mind, keeping me blind from the reality of what’s being done,” sings Lauryn Hill. “I keep playing the fool to help everyone.” The unreleased song, “Damnable Heresies,” is haunting and mournful — the perfect complement to play over the closing credits of the new documentary On the Record, which premiered Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
The movie centers largely on former music executive Drew Dixon, one of at least 18 women— some of whom appear in the documentary — who have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct and crimes, including assault and rape, dating back to the 1990s.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of Simmons but may not be familiar with Dixon, even after she came forward in late 2017. Which is exactly why Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering wanted to tell her story and why they stood behind the film even after Oprah Winfrey took her name off the project as executive producer just two weeks before its premiere. The loss of Winfrey’s support — and the wide distribution Winfrey’s Apple TV+ partnership had promised — plunged the documentary and Simmons’ accusers into a firestorm of controversy.
The atmosphere in the room was nearly palpable, a mixture of shock, grief, and anger. Yet, when the lights came up, there was only a handful of Black men in the theater.
The ever-shifting run-up to its premiere, as well as recent TV news appearances by Dixon and others, made On the Record’s premiere feel as much like a mass catharsis as it was a film-festival screening. After the documentary received a standing ovation from a jam-packed crowd, Dixon — alongside two other Simmons accusers and a chorus of advocates who appear in the film — told the auditorium she felt relieved now that an audience has seen the film.
“This has been a gestation period,” said Dixon. “I don’t know if it’s been two years or 22 years, but we have midwifed this baby into the world — and it’s just the beginning.”
With A&R stints at Def Jam and Arista, Dixon figured prominently in a number of successful songs and artists from the 1990s — perhaps most famously Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s remix of “You’re All I Need.” Despite her successes, Dixon’s career came to an abrupt halt in the early 2000s; the harassment and rape she endured at the hands of Russell Simmons and her refusal to have quid pro quo sex with Arista Records head L.A. Reid, she said in the documentary, had pushed her over the edge.
On the Record not only provides a history of Dixon’s work and influence in the music industry, but it also gives viewers a rare behind-the-scenes look at how she grapples with the decision of whether or not to come forward publicly. From her meticulous description of the alleged rape to her emotional response seeing the original New York Times article, it quickly becomes clear that hers was far from a rash decision — let alone an opportunistic one, as Simmons has claimed about some of his accusers. What truly makes the film special is how it depicts Dixon’s transformation from a silent victim to a resilient survivor; after not speaking about the rape and abuse for over a decade, she finds it within herself to go public. (While Simmons did not participate, and in fact lobbied Winfrey to remove herself, the film devotes time to his denials and written statements.)
Throughout the screening, I saw people with mouths agape, hands covering them. I heard sniffling and tears, a chorus of sighs of both exasperation and devastation. The atmosphere in the room was nearly palpable, a mixture of shock, grief, and anger. Yet, when the lights came up and I looked out into the audience, there was only a handful of Black men in the theater. In fact, most of the people of the audience — like filmmakers Dick and Ziering themselves — were White.
“I wish there were more Black men who saw this film and more staying after the screening,” said Jimmie Briggs, a journalist and founder of the gender equality advocacy organization Man Up who attended the premiere. “That was kind of painful for me, to be honest, not to see Black men there. I really hope … that the Black community particularly holds up the survivors who spoke in the film — and those who didn’t. We have to believe them. We have to honor them.”
At a panel after the screening, Dixon — along with directors Dick and Ziering, survivors Sil Lai Abrams and Sherri Hines, and a number of experts featured in the film — took questions from the audience and discussed what we had all just seen. Many broke into tears as they spoke. It was a reckoning that no one in that room could deny; a lid had been pulled off of a pot that’s long been boiling over yet somehow out of sight.
Abrams, an activist and writer, talked about the rejection she felt from Black people who knew about her story. “I, as a Black woman, will not choose my race over my gender,” she said. “I can love Black men and still have a right to stand up and tell my story. It is unfortunate that the people who actually took me seriously and broke my story were White. I went to Black people first, and I was denied. So allyship is important, but let us not forget who the people are in power — and the one degree of separation that everyone has to a Russell Simmons.”
“They don’t have the same vulnerability that we have [as Black women],” Dixon said of Dick and Ziering. “They listened, they deferred, they learned, and they centered us.”
Shanita Hubbard, a writer and speaker who appeared in the documentary, made a particularly bold statement to the audience during the post-screening panel — without mentioning Winfrey or Simmons’ names once. “This isn’t just entertainment,” she said. “Some of you, this is not your community, this is not your story, this is not your people. You’ll write your review and move on to the next story. I’m concerned and I’m prepared to push back and fight if the narrative stops focusing on Black women survivors.”
Homero Radway, who works for a podcast consulting firm in Brooklyn, came out of the screening with his three daughters on his mind. “We’re all losing because we’re trying to save these men that we think are our saviors,” he said, “and in turn sacrificing all these people with so much art and love and story and brilliance. We’ve had the opportunity to listen to Black women, and we haven’t — and we’ve suffered.”
As hip-hop journalist Kierna Mayo points out in the documentary, Dixon’s disappearance from the music industry was not only a personal loss but a loss for all of us. If Dixon was already perceived as a talent in her twenties, it stands to reason that she would’ve gone on to create even more beloved music. (Mayo, former editor-in-chief at The Source and Ebony, didn’t speak during the post-screening panel.) And it’s that fundamental feeling of loss, of sustained grief, that haunts us alongside Lauryn Hill’s voice as the credits roll.
Now every time I bop my head to “You’re All I Need,” every time I silently mouth the lyrics along with Mary and Meth, I’m going to think about Dixon and the price she paid so that we could have that song. I’m going to pay tribute to the career and well-being that was taken from her, and the fact that she found the strength to reclaim her own story — a legacy that’s better than even the dopest beat or the flyest rhyme.