With COVID-19 dominating news feeds, it’s more important than ever before to keep our attention on movements like #MeToo and the fight for gender equality. The music industry, like many male-dominated fields, is rife with stories of harassment and assault. And the disconcerting trend we see over and over in cases of sexual assault pops up in the music industry, too: the silence of women scared that speaking up will mean losing their careers.
Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick seek to break this mold in On the Record, an intense and poignant account of one woman’s fight to tell her story. Drew Dixon, formerly a music executive at Def Jam Recordings and Arista Records, is one of the first women of color to speak up publicly about sexual assault at the hands of a prominent industry giant. On the Record tells her story, and those of several other women alleging sexual assault, harassment, or rape by music mogul Russell Simmons.
“While watching the film, what hit me the hardest was how much talent was and continues to be wasted, not to mention how much potential goes unrealized, because of the unspeakable behavior of powerful men,” writes Jacki Zehner in her article, It’s Time to Go ON THE RECORD. “This film looks at this issue within the music industry. Dixon is deeply credible, in fact, beyond credible, and any accusations that she may not be leave me baffled.” Zehner goes on to discuss how On the Record depicted Dixon moving up the ranks in the music industry, an extremely tough sector with very little female representation. “I could not help but draw parallels to the financial services industry I worked in for over a decade. This film…offers a very painful study on this type of behavior, and in so doing, I hope it sheds light on how to stop it.”
Other experts have also released statements recognizing the importance of On the Record in terms of bringing the voices of women of color into the #MeToo movement. Tina Tchen, president and CEO of the Time’s Up Foundation, praised Dixon, Abrams, Sher and other survivors featured in the film. “Black women are subjected to both racism and sexism — a double bind that puts black women at higher risk for sexual violence and contributes to a ‘culture of silence’ that prevents them from telling their stories,” said Tchen.
On the Record is the latest short film from Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. Ziering and Dick are the team behind two acclaimed documentaries that highlight the pressing epidemic of rape in the United States: 2013’s The Invisible War, which targets systemic assault cases of women in the U.S. military, and 2015’s The Hunting Ground, which investigates the devastating impact of rapes and their cover-ups on U.S. college campuses.
Where The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground focus on this epidemic from perspectives that do not delve into race, On the Record takes the conversation a step further by examining a new explanation for why many women do not speak up.
“The stories of all of the brave women in this film were heart-wrenching to watch, but On the Record goes further by delving deeper into the reasons why up until recently the voices of the #MeToo movement were not fully representative of the spectrum of survivors,” writes Zehner. “In particular, it examines the systemic discriminations that far too often silence women of color, and looks at the cultural pressures from within their own communities to stay silent.”
In the film, Dixon speaks often of her commitment to the Black community, and the fear behind her reluctance to tell her story.”‘He’s the king of hip hop – the Black community will hate my guts,'” Dixon recalls telling herself, when speaking on-camera about her motivations not to report Simmons to the police. “I didn’t want to let the culture down. I love the culture.”
It’s important to note that both Ziering and Dick are white, and during screenings of the film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, critics challenged the filmmakers’ place to tell this particular story. But some believe that bringing these stories to light is something that people of all backgrounds can play a part in.
Intersectional Factors in Sexual Trauma for Women of Color
A key facet of this film is its intersectionality: On the Record addresses Kimberlé Crenshaw’s descriptive term for the way race, gender, class, and other characteristics “intersect” or overlap. (Crenshaw fielded questions at the Q&A that followed the film’s Sundance screening, and her perspective on the issues addressed in On the Record speak volumes for the growth of intersectionality over the last 30 years.)
“In interviews, Dixon has spoken candidly about the social norms within African American communities that favor protecting their men at all costs, even at the expense of the women who may have been victims of those men,” writes Zehner. “Where On the Record shines is how it addresses these issues with sensitive insight and informative critiques, all while ensuring that a powerful man is finally held accountable for his actions.”
Films like On the Record serve an important purpose in addressing systemic issues that slow the progress of gender equality. And like many controversial creative pieces that came before, On the Record struggled to even make it to its release date. Oprah Winfrey publicly pulled out as lead producer of the film a few weeks before its Sundance premier, and the film’s distribution was in limbo until HBO Max swept in to save the day.
“I for one am very grateful that [HBO Max] acquired the rights to On the Record, thereby ensuring that this film would be seen beyond Sundance,” writes Zehner. “I have no doubt that there was a lot of pressure by many within the music industry to not give this film a home. Even more than that, I am grateful to the filmmakers and for the many brave women who so boldly came forward to share their stories. Doing so always comes at huge personal cost to survivors who speak out, and therefore we can honor their bravery by choosing to watch their stories, and by doing our best to understand and take action against this pervasive behavior.”
The film premiered on HBO Max on May 27, 2020. To see a preview of On the Record, click here.
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