On The Record

Powered by the fearless testimony of former Def Jam Recordings executive Drew Dixon, as well as by other survivors and activists, mostly women of colour, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering‘s On The Record is an incredibly well-crafted doc tracing not only the irreversible intimate, creative, and professional loss of the survivors of sexual assault, but the loss the entire culture suffers without the brilliant voices of these women, in power, shaping it. Speaking of rape and sexual misconduct allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and working in an often casually mysogynist atmosphere of the 1990s hip-hop and music industry, a deeply personal wound becomes even more haunting, intersectionally, when combined with the historical injustices of both race and gender, and the painfully twisted, entrenched political practice of protecting individual abusers, as to not damage an important collective agenda.

The fiercely talented Dixon, in her expressive and precise way, describes the experience of leaving the job she excelled in and loved as holding her breath for 16 years. She likens speaking out to the New York Times in 2017, re-living her experience of emotional and vocational nadir, as “pressing play on a movie that I paused 22 years ago in the middle of the scariest scene.” Her accusations of alleged rape by her former boss at Def Jam, Simmons, and further alleged sexual harassment by L.A. Reid, then CEO at Arista Records, still stand, yet have not been legally pursued.

“It caverned me,” says Sil Lai Abrams, domestic violence awareness activist and award-winning author, who after the alleged rape she suffered from Simmons, also left her job, as fashion model, and went no contact with anyone in the industry to avoid any reminders of the man who she feels, effectively, destroyed her life.

Both Simmons and Reid deny the accusations, vehemently, claiming they are false. Both declined to be interviewed for this film, but sent written responses further denying the claims. Simmons, a long-time proponent of veganism and meditation, now is reported to live in Bali, Indonesia, which has no extradition agreement with the United States.

Similar stories we hear from other survivors, such as musician Sheri Sher, writer and actress Jenny Lumet, authors Alexia Norton Jones and Kelly Cutrone, model Keri Claussen Khalighi, singer and songwriter Tina Baker, as sexual predators typically have a steady pattern, a particular trap, a narrative of abuse, type of women they target, and an established way they lure them in. Activists, among them Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, civil rights lawyer and philosopher Kimberle CrenshawEbony magazine editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo, and author Dr. Joan Morgan, also speak of the terrible cultural and political burden black women face when reporting sexual crimes within their communities.

Oprah Winfrey, who executive produced the doc, pulled out last minute before its Sundance 2020 premiere. Deep into the #MeToo era, this kind of exposé still attracts high controversy. Repeatedly emphasised throughout the film is the history of black men continually victimised and demonised, labelled as sexually predatory, as to be persecuted, and institutionally targeted, a heightened and understandable concern in tackling the subject in the current polarised political landscape, especially in the US. Therefore, the entire narrative could indeed be potentially politically damaging in the wrong hands. Nuance in understanding the deep cultural issues at play is key, all the interviewed women agree.

Healing sexual trauma is a difficult, prolonged, sometimes life-long intricate process, and in the case of many women, its impact on their lives also involves significant vocational devastation, parallel to the personal one. A “loss of light” as Kierna Mayo, so rightly describes.

The years of running away from the horror of the experience can never be retrieved, but with refusing the perpetual state of victimhood, and embracing the path of justice and agency, Dixon is steadily back in business, on her own musical turf, as a truly inspiring example to all who have suffered similarly.

The violation of womanhood represents an age-old method of subjugation of the female-born, across our world, a deprivation of a rightful feminine impact on society, culture, governance, and perhaps most poignantly, the fulfillment of one’s own unique destiny.

Unlike the Weinstein case, to date no criminal charges have been brought against Simmons and Reid, though the day may come. However, by opening up their lives in all the fragility of expressing and re-living such experiences, these exceptionally courageous women thus become wise guides to others, particularly women in vulnerable communities, empowering a wounded femininity to solidarity, empathy and action.

An era-defining doc.

★★★★★

Author: © Milana Vujkov

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