Film Review: On the Record


As the public allegations against Harvey Weinstein mounted in 2017, #MeToo became a viral campaign exposing the culture of sexual assault not just in Hollywood, but throughout the entertainment industry. In December of that year, former music mogul Drew Dixon came forward with her own allegations against music producer Russell Simmons and Sony exec ‘L.A.’ Reid.

In their new film, American directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick document the weeks in which Dixon came forward with her story. Through talking head interviews, archival images and verité footage, the film is a mixture of historical reconstruction and real-time reportage. Indeed, On the Record is as much a document of Dixon’s struggle to come forward as it is of her assaults, presenting the stress and shame of coming forward as intractably tied to her trauma as the assault itself.

As a young woman, Dixon was passionate and knowledgeable about pop music and through a combination of musical talent and business savvy, she found herself producing some of hip-hop’s most iconic records, including orchestrating Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s legendary collaboration on You’re All I Need. She was soon within the sphere of Russell Simmons, the so-called ‘Godfather of hip-hop’. Simmons had a reputation for surrounding himself with attractive black women – “Russell’s tall, skinny bitches” – as Dixon’s white male boss once spat at her. Unwanted sexual advances from Simmons were quick to follow before he allegedly raped her at his apartment.

“Allegedly”, because it would be almost impossible to prove it in court. But there is no doubt that it happened, both to Dixon and to the many other women who came forward with similar stories of his assaults. Her recounting of the attack is appalling, made worse by the fact that in her next job, the exact same cycle was repeated working under mogul L.A. Reid, ultimately driving Dixon to quit the industry she loved. Her experiences are exemplary of a problem that cannot be put down to just a few ‘bad apples’, but one that is endemic within the industry.

For much of On the Record’s audience, the institutional nature of rape culture will hardly be news, but the real accomplishment of Ziering and Dick’s film is to present Dixon’s story as an experience unique to black women, at the bottom of a historical hegemony that finds white, rich men very much at the top. This is reinforced both by the interviews with some of Simmons’ other survivors – writer Sil Lai Abrams among them – and by scholars like Intersectionality author Kimberlé Crenshaw. Here, Crenshaw helps contextualise Dixon and Abram’s sense of shame by presenting the cultural discourses that sanction assault against black women and discourage them from speaking out.

On the Record is at once a heartbreaking account of the survival of a group of courageous women, an analysis of the structural and cultural intersections between racism and misogyny, and an indictment of an industry happy to ignore and condone sexual violence. Dixon’s story is not the first, nor will it be the last, example of the rot of institutionalised violence. But the film offers a hope that if we listen to and believe women of colour when they tell us they are hurt, then that rot may begin to be uprooted.

On the Record is released on digital platforms on 26 June.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm

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