This documentary, that explores racism and misogyny in the music industry and the importance of speaking out, is vital viewing.
When the New York Times published its expose of Harvey Weinstein, a deluge of women spoke up about their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of the now-convicted rapist. But it was more than telling that out of all the accusations he could possibly deny, he chose to issue immediate statements against Salma Hayek and Lupita Nyong’o, two women of colour, rather than the countless number of white women who also shared their stories.
You might also remember that when the #MeToo movement grew in recognition, courtesy of a tweet posted by white actress Alyssa Milano, coverage initially failed to credit its founder Tarana Burke until black women spoke up on her behalf.
So often women of colour are easily discredited or erased from societal conversations in order to put more “palatable” white women on a pedestal and it’s with this context in mind that one can understand the importance of a documentary like On The Record. Directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick had previously earned critical acclaim for their examination of sexual assault, through films The Invisible War (2012) and The Hunting Ground (2015), but this new 96-minute documentary offers a much-needed black female perspective on #MeToo.
The film goes further than simply recounting the decades-long allegations against hip hop music mogul Russell Simmons, rather, it examines the systems of racial oppression that has allowed black women’s voices to be silenced. It looks at the whitewashing of feminism that has frequently failed to take into account the intersectional experience of oppression for women of colour while giving various black women – including Burke, culture writer Bim Adewunmi and author Kimberlé Crenshaw – a chance to discuss the problematic elements of black culture that has too often expected its female members to subordinate themselves in order to protect harmful men within the community.
The filmmakers give a platform to several of Simmons’ accusers to share their truth, including Sil Lai Abrams, Sherri Hines and Jenny Lumet, but it is Drew Dixon’s journey that provides the narrative backbone to the film. The camera follows the former music exec around New York in 2017, as she grapples with the decision to speak publicly about her alleged experience of rape by the hip hop icon while she was Head of A&R at DefJam Records, and the alleged sexual harassment by L.A. Reid at Arista Records, during the 90s.
Through archive photos, music videos and Dixon’s storytelling, the film paints a picture of a young black woman working tirelessly to carve out a career in music on her own merit. That effort resulted in critical and commercial hits for artists like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Method Man, however, no amount of professional success could protect Dixon from the misogyny of the music industry. As Abrams puts it, “sexual harassment was baked into the culture.” It was the price of admission for a seat at the table and “the alternative is that you’ll be unemployed.”
Of course, hip hop did not invent misogyny as Kierna Mayo, writer and former editor at The Source, explains. Every genre of music, especially genres dominated by white men, have a history of diminishing women in society. Mayo, Dixon and feminist cultural critic Dr. Joan Morgan point out that hip hop is so tied up with the black experience that it’s hard for women to speak about sexual discrimination without being accused of tearing their men down in the process. “By mid-80s, you had your G-raps and your hardcore MCs who are introducing misogyny over dope beats and then things become palatable,” Mayo says.
“You stand in solidarity with the movement as a black woman,” Dixon adds. “You don’t parse the sexism within the movement as a black woman. We were all so excited about hip hop that we tolerated it and laughed about it.”
This acceptance was understandable. Society has proven time and time again that the law is exponentially tougher on black men so it’s no wonder black women have been reluctant to accuse or criticise them publicly out of fear of a backlash against the community or even from the community. Dixon had watched both Anita Hill and Desiree Washington’s name be dragged through the mud after speaking out against two prominent black men. She, and other victims of Simmons, were scared of experiencing the same.
The documentary does well to acknowledge various other aspects of the African-American experience that has contributed to the silencing of black women. Dixon’s journey takes her to a slave castle in Ghana, where she talks about the historic brutalisation of black bodies and the inherited trauma that the community is still shouldering the burden of today. Colourism is also addressed in an important moment where Abrams, Lumet and Dixon discuss their light-skinned privilege of being able to speak out more freely compared to darker-skinned women.
Though, the most commanding part of the film is hearing the stories of Simmons’ accusers. You, as a viewer, know that in order to speak truth to power they have to relive that harrowing experience in their mind and suffer the residual pain from it. It’s one of the most courageous things you could possibly witness.
In one of the final scenes, Dixon dusts off a 12-inch copy of Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By. She had produced the track and was playing it for the first time since leaving the music industry behind two decades earlier. It’s a cathartic moment and a poignant reminder for black women that relief can be found if their voices are heard. In order to do that, society needs to listen and On The Record is an important place to start.
On The Record is available on demand now