On the Record review: A fascinating portrait of MeToo's invisible women
The controversial but important documentary, streaming on HBO Max, explores the lack of visibility for black women in the MeToo movement.
Jennifer BissetFormer Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
On the Record, the latest documentary from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, starts off with a question: "What's missing from MeToo?" The answer, explored through an ongoing sexual harassment scandal in the American
industry, is the perspective of black women.
Specifically, one woman: Drew Dixon, a former music recording executive who worked her way up through Def Jam -- a hip-hop label currently behind Kanye West, Logic and Big Sean -- in New York during the '90s. Starting as a 20-something, she built up a successful career that involved producing hits like You're All I Need by Method Man featuring Mary J. Blige.
But, as is documented in a 2017 New York Times article and in other media since, she came under the attention of the label's influential founder Russell Simmons, who's been called the "godfather" of hip-hop. His alleged sexual harassment of her -- the allegations include rape -- led her to cut short her promising career in the music industry.
On the Record, streaming on
now, is told from Dixon's perspective, with no narrator and a large collection of talking heads, including ex-colleagues, civil rights activists and a number of other women who've accused Simmons of sexual misconduct (he allegedly raped three women in incidents between 1988 to 2014, and is the subject of multiple other sexual harassment claims).
The documentary's structure has shortcomings -- many of the survivors appear fleetingly in a rush toward the end, and there's a lack of meticulousness in painting a full picture of the hip-hop era in the '90s. The filmmakers also give little time to delving deeper into the stories of the other survivors.
However, the combined stories of these women leave a powerful lasting impact. And ultimately On the Record is a focused and disturbing portrayal of Dixon's personal account of her time at Def Jam, how it affected her later in life and the 20-year-long journey it took to tell her story. As a rare platform for her voice and others like hers, On the Record rings with the importance of giving black women a chance to speak out, while detailing why it's so difficult to do so.
In several interviews, including a moment leading up to Dixon's revelatory interview with the Times, she covers the many psychological roadblocks she faced to become the first woman of color to go on record with allegations against Simmons. (Simmons declined to be interviewed for the documentary and has publicly expressed criticism of it.)
Dixon and others describe the culture of misogyny built into the hip-hop industry -- and the music industry in general -- and the sacrifices made to have a career in the business at all. The illustration of women's powerlessness -- Dixon allegedly experiences another incident with Epic Records executive L.A. Reid -- and the consequences of speaking out are the most affecting themes that linger after the credits.
Old footage of Mike Tyson victim Desiree Washington (Tyson was convicted of raping Washington in the early '90s) helps to pack a punch with Dixon's anxieties about what happened to other women who spoke out. Washington is shown struggling to articulate herself in interviews while under intense media and court scrutiny, giving a sense of the doubt cast against her.
However, Dixon's descriptions of the "chaos" she would have caused for her family by telling her story are only briefly circled back to: She mentions her divorce with her husband, but he doesn't appear.
The thread that explores the question of whether MeToo applies to black women isn't a strong through line, despite the film's initial setup. But when it is brought up again, in between details of the Simmons case already prevalent in the media, it's one of the most interesting explorations.
Dixon talks about how black women risk facing backlash from the black community if they expose violent sexual behavior from black men. In staying silent, she says, she "takes one for the team." We later see the tense moment Dixon waits to hear the response from Hot 97, a major hip-hop radio station, to her New York Times article.
Other fascinating layers, like Dixon talking about light-skin privilege with fellow survivors Jenny Lumet and Sil Lai Abrams, are briefly touched on. While there's more to be explored, all these details help show the full effect of the physical and psychological trauma Dixon experienced. In the lead-up to talking to Times reporters, there's a note of frustration when, despite her being convinced to do the interview, she's told she has to wait for a vigorous background check.
In its opening, On the Record asks why there aren't more black MeToo voices coming forward in Hollywood. Dick and Ziering, white filmmakers, don't drill into exposing systemic issues, instead offering some answers to this complicated question. They also illustrate the destruction and pain caused to survivors -- Abrams talks about how she attempted suicide -- and the enormous courage it takes to speak out.
Controversially, Oprah Winfrey pulled out of the project as executive producer a fortnight before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this January, citing differences in the "creative vision." A lack of "context" given to the era of hip-hop in the '90s, as well as public pressure from Simmons, have been drawn into speculation for the decision.
Despite this noise, and ending with statements from Simmons and Reid denying the allegations, On the Record concludes on a positive note, showing Dixon potentially working in music again. (She's since founded record label The 9th Floor).
Among other cultural news stories, it was in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that Dixon made the decision to come forward with her story. In that regard, On the Record is another important contribution to the movement, giving visibility to voices that have struggled to be heard, and inspiration for more to speak out.
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