Review: On the Record

It’s been a daunting week. While the country limps through a grim Coronavirus milestone, there’s news of another incident of white police killing a black man and a racist confrontation in Central Park. In the midst of it all, and perhaps as a bit of a distraction from the heartbreaking headlines, HBO launches HBO Max, their latest streaming platform that expands on their existing proprietary content (finally, “Friends” is streaming again). Included in the launch is On the Record, a documentary that feels at once like recent history (remember when #MeToo was the worst thing happening in the world?) and as urgent and necessary as ever. Co-directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground), the film follows the unfolding of accusations against hip-hop music mogul Russell Simmons and the women who share their stories of rape and sexual assault at his hands.

When the film—then still untitled—premiered at Sundance Film Festival back in January, it made headlines in the industry as Oprah Winfrey abruptly removed herself as an executive producer and pulled the film from a planned distribution deal with AppleTV+. At the time, it was assumed the media matriarch was feeling the pressure from Simmons and others about the explosive accusations in the film; though it’s still unknown why she pulled out, On the Record (as it was eventually titled) has found a home on a platform with a strong track record of elevating worthy documentaries. And this one, to be sure, deserves as much elevating as possible.

Primarily centered on music producer Drew Dixon, her meteoric rise in the industry and her story of what Simmons did to her, On the Record is exceptional for a number of reasons—like their earlier films, it’s expertly crafted by Kirby and Ziering to recount an unfolding of events with the meticulous eye of a journalist; as a time capsule, it sharply establishes the culture and context of the hip-hop scene of the mid 1990s; and as a document of the experience and perspective of black women whose stories demand to be heard, it is a revelation. Truly, like no other film you’ll see this year, On the Record requires that, whatever you bring to the viewing—whatever worldview, whatever experience, whatever preconceived notions—you put it all aside and just listen. Listen, dammit.

It’s no accident that nearly every woman featured in the film is black. Though a few of Simmon’s victims (and let’s be clear: with 20 women now publicly accusing him of harassment, assault or rape, we’re working from a position that believes them) are white, On the Record intentionally centers the stories of three black women—Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams and Jenny Lumet. By doing so, it shines a light on voices that are far too often not heard in these conversations; the sad reality is, Uma Thurman’s accusations against Harvey Weinstein are what’s likely to show up in the 24-hour news cycle over similar stories from people of color. With incredibly insightful contributions from authors, cultural critics and activists (Tarana Burke, Dr. Joan Morgan and Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others), Simmons’ pattern of abuse is traced back to both the use of sexual abuse as a tool of oppression since the start of slavery as well as to the multi-layered conversations within the black community about the relationship between and varied roles of men and women. It all serves to paint a devastatingly honest portrait of a complicated issue.

What’s not complicated is the strength, resolve and courage of Dixon, Abrams, Lumet and the dozen or so other women who boldly sit in their truth and share it with the world. To this day (and although the stories of his abuse date to as recently as 2014) Simmons denies every allegation of forced sexual encounters, and he has yet to be charged with any crimes. Nevertheless, these women (and the shocking similarities in their stories) cannot be denied their space in an ongoing, necessary conversation. Thankfully, a film as bold and unflinching as On the Record exists to ensure that they will be heard.

There’s a lot in flux in the world these days, including just how something like the Oscars might work in a year where movie theaters have been closed for months on end. Already, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (who present the awards) are rethinking eligibility rules to allow for films that go straight to streaming platforms (not to mention if the ceremony will even happen in early 2021). If there’s any justice in this world, Russell Simmons will one day be held to account for what he’s done. That, and this film would win an Oscar for its role in bringing these stories to light.

On the Record is now streaming on HBO Max.