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On the Record Hints at What’s Lost When Abuse Forces Women to Leave the Work They Love

6 minute read

It’s been nearly three years since the fall of Harvey Weinstein forced the gates of the #MeToo movement wide open, instilling courage in untold numbers of women to tell their own stories about inappropriate or illegal behavior in the workplace. Now it may be time to focus a little more on what we lose, as a culture, when women have no choice but to abandon work they love because the behavior of a male superior has made a job untenable. On the Record, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, takes positive steps in that direction, suggesting that modern music itself might have been vastly different if the music business of the 1990s had been less hostile to women.

Growing up, Drew Dixon—one of the anchor figures in On the Record—had always loved music. In the mid-1990s she landed her dream job, as director of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, the hugely influential label co-founded by Russell Simmons. She was poised for success from the start: In 1995, a soundtrack she’d executive-produced with Simmons, for the music documentary The Show, went platinum.

But the dream job wasn’t so dreamy: Dixon, 24 at the time, alleges that she was being sexually harassed at the office by Simmons, her direct supervisor, and was suffering from depression. According to her account, one night, as she was leaving a bar and trying to get a cab home, she ran into Simmons on the street. He offered to call her a car, and though she at first resisted going up to his apartment, he made her an offer he knew she wouldn’t be able to resist: He said he had a demo he wanted her to hear. Dixon was always on the hunt for new music, and her professional curiosity got the better of her. But she says that when she got to Simmons’ apartment, there was no demo. Instead, he approached her and pinned her down on the bed. Dixon blacked out and later came to, naked, in Simmons’ hot tub, knowing she’d been raped. Back at work a few days later, she recalls that Simmons acted as if the two suddenly had a secret understanding, and Dixon, repulsed, knew what she had to do: She resigned from the job she loved.

On the Record addresses not only Dixon’s reportedly harrowing experience with Simmons—who denies all charges against him—but that of numerous other women, including Sil Lai Abrams, a former executive assistant at Def Jam, and Sheri Hines, of the all-woman hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies. Dixon was one of three women who accused Simmons of charges including rape and sexual misconduct in a 2017 New York Times story. But in On the Record, Dick and Ziering dig deeper into the experiences of Dixon and several other women who have come forward against Simmons. Most importantly, On the Record explores why, even though the #MeToo movement has drastically changed the landscape for women in the workplace, it’s still much harder for women of color to report sex crimes. Even after the Times and the New Yorker had published women’s detailed accusations against Weinstein, it didn’t occur to Dixon that she, too, could come forward with her charges against Simmons. As she puts it in On the Record, “As a black woman, I didn’t know if this applies.”

The #MeToo movement was founded by a black activist, Tarana Burke. But it remains much more difficult for women of color to report sex crimes. On the Record includes interviews with a number of activists and scholars—including Burke and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw—who explore the reasons women of color often refrain from pressing charges. They may fear the authorities won’t believe them, or they distrust the criminal-justice system, particularly given the way it has historically treated black men: Even when they’ve been wronged, they may be wary of aggravating the stereotype of the sexually violent black man.

The complicated pressures and anxieties that make black women hesitant to speak out are reflected in the film’s own uphill battle in finding an audience. Just as On the Record was about to premiere at Sundance, Oprah Winfrey withdrew as one of the film’s executive producers, which also meant the end of the film’s distribution deal with Apple TV+. Winfrey admitted that Simmons had approached her and tried to persuade her to cut her ties to the film. But she claims that it wasn’t pressure from Simmons that caused her to back out; rather, she felt the film showed evidence of “inconsistencies” that made her uncomfortable.

Dixon and other women who came forward to tell their stories in On the Record—which will now be presented on HBO Max—felt stung by Winfrey’s withdrawal. “What’s happening with this film and the difficult path it’s finding, even in the home stretch, to just see the light of day is sort of a meta example of what the whole conversation of the film is about,” Dixon told Variety in January. No wonder women resist speaking out against powerful men, when they know how much clout money can buy. (Another documentary, Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, appearing on the landscape simultaneously with On the Record, only reinforces that grim reality.)

And just by themselves, the stories told in On the Record are harrowing enough. Dixon talks about what happened to her with piercing candor. She explains that not long after she left Def Jam, she went to work for legendary music mogul Clive Davis at Arista, where her career once again thrived. But when Davis stepped down, Dixon says she found herself being harassed by his replacement, L.A. Reid. (Reid, like Simmons, denies all charges.) Dixon loved music and she loved the music business, but the systemic misogyny of the culture was breaking her. What would the world at large be like if women like Dixon weren’t driven away from work they were good at, work they loved? We can’t really know the answer: It’s a question mark hanging in the air, a vessel of possibility whose contents we can only guess at. While it’s all to the good that Drew Dixon’s story has come to light, it’s likely that Russell Simmons will always be more famous than she is. In another, more just world, it could have been the other way around.

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