It’s not often that a movie gets a standing ovation before the curtain is raised. The fact that On the Record did at Saturday’s Sundance premiere was an acknowledgment, maybe, of how difficult it’s been to get this story to the screen: not just the abrupt, much-documented exit of Oprah Winfrey as executive producer, but the years — if not decades — that its subject matter has been dismissed, ignored, or relegated to the margins.
Record’s primary focus is the ongoing sexual abuse said to have been perpetrated by legendary music mogul Russell Simmons, primarily against women of color. And co-directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering do home in on that subject, in chilling and often furious detail — much of it pegged to the particular story of Drew Dixon, who worked under Simmons as a young A&R executive in the early ’90s, helping to discover and develop some of the most iconic artists of the decade.
Her value to his business was indisputable, though that didn’t stop him, the movie alleges, from aggressively attempting to seduce her for months — a failed pursuit that she says ultimately culminated in rape. Dixon wasn’t alone: Some 20 women have since come forward with strikingly similar accusations, and what Dick and Ziering show, through interviews, archival clips and meticulous research, feels irrefutably damning. (In a statement included in the film, Russell categorically denies the allegations against him.)
But the movie’s larger message, driven home again and again by its interview subjects, touches a deeper nerve, too: the ugly fact of black women’s erasure from the largely white, privileged narrative of #MeToo, and the tangled obligations of race and cultural disapproval that often work to keep them silent, or simply unlistened to.
Record also devotes a substantial portion of the film to a sort of Behind the Music survey course on ’90s hip-hop — which is probably helpful context for the uninitiated, and engaging enough on its own terms, if not a little digressive. What the chronicling of Dixon’s career does make clear by the end is how much is lost not just by the victims themselves, but to the culture at large when women like her walk away from the work they love.
If the subject ultimately proves to be more slippery and diffuse than in the duo’s previous films (The Invisible War addressed sexual assault in the military, The Hunting Ground, campus rape), it also never feels like less than required viewing: brutal, heartbreaking, and — with or without Oprah’s co-sign — utterly necessary. A–
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