Film / TVMusicSex & Gender

‘on the record’ looks at blackness in the #metoo era

January 27, 2020
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In 2017, just as the movement that has come to be known as #MeToo, named after Tarana Burke’s decade-old phrase that united survivors of sexual assault (especially young girls of color), the documentary directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering joined forces to embark on a long-overdue story. 

Their film, On The Record, is hard to digest in the way the truth always is. On the surface, the story is of the environment created at the legendary hip-hop label, Def Jam Records, back in the 1990s, fostered by the people in power and maintained by the society-at-large. This culture was heavy on sexual harassment, under the guise that this was the price to pay to be a part of the exciting world of hip-hop. Schools of thought like “don’t be so thin-skinned” were the gospel of the time, and as the documentary explains, set the tone for a culture that has hurt more people than one can even imagine. Unwritten social rules dictated that women could thrive at a company as long as men were allowed to exist as freely as they wanted. With an office, industry and outside world of no one to look out for them, these women were silenced and attempted to be made invisible. “On The Record” shows the strenuous work it takes to undo all the damage cultures like these have caused.  

On The Record follows the story of several women who say they were sexually abused, and consequently silenced, by music mogul Russell Simmons. With Simmons as a reference, the film highlights a world that goes above and beyond to discredit women, in order to protect powerful men who abuse. This story is more than just a retelling of the horrific acts done by Simmons. It is a brave and hopeful look into the future by women to benefit others everywhere. It is about the courage to step beyond yourself when forced into a purpose in order to ensure that no one else has to suffer the same. It is a luminous tale of sisterhood from the perspective of Black women.

Former A&R executive Drew Dixon, who the film closely follows, says she was raped by Russell Simmons in 1995, which resulted in her departure from Def Jam Records — and eventually, from the music industry. Motivated by her own fears she has bravely taken this opportunity to speak up for herself, and other women who have been abused and intimidated to stay silent. Dixon has learned that healing a community takes exactly that: a community. Now in 2020, she has a support system heavy in women of color and after 20+ years of suffering in silence, has begun to find herself again.

Through her personal journey, Dixon has been made to understand sexual harassment in all forms. While she was an incredible force in the music world — and recognized as such by many who worked with her — the film shows how Dixon’s worth was still reduced to her sexuality by those in power. Years after being abused by Simmons, Dixon rejoined the music industry to work with Clive Davis where she continued to thrive in her field. She loved working with him but after a few years, Davis stepped down and L.A. Reid became her new boss. The film tells how she again experienced sexual intimidation throughout her time working with him. According to Dixon, Reid was kind to her when they began working together, but after realizing he would not receive sexual favors from her (she refused time and time again to enter hotel rooms with him), the executive quickly became sour. According to the film, his anger grew, he allegedly began to actively stunt her career. The film suggests that Reid stopped her from signing future superstar acts like Kanye West and John Legend as punishment, leaving Dixon to realize she would be blocked from doing great work for protecting herself. He too took away an enormous part of Dixon, leaving her without any option but to leave behind her passion. (In 2017, Reid was suddenly dismissed from his job at Sony Music, though sexual harassment has never been officially stated as the reason.)  

Every single woman featured in this documentary shares the same sentiment that on one night of their lives, a man stole the most valuable thing from them: themselves. Only now, that the world has provided a sliver of space for them to live in their truth without shame, has their healing process begun. The documentary emphasizes that in hurting these women, the world was hurt too. When one group is hurt, it affects all of us. The film forces us to think about all the incredible people, talents and music we have lost because so many incredible women were forced out of this painful industry.

It is not lost on those in the documentary that the women speaking up are of light skin complexion. They point out how hard it is for all women of color to speak up but specifically how darker-skinned women are taken less seriously in these conversations. The racism and colorism that exists in conversations of sexual harassment have been very dangerous for Black women. On The Record examines the Black community’s role in the silencing of women by discussing past cultural sentiments, such as “You let this happen to you and now we have to pay as a race?” Or that many Black women are labeled as traitors if they call the police on Black man for abusing them. The racial history that complicates the issue of sexual harassment in the Black community runs so deep, it is rarely dissected. For a Black woman to turn a Black man in has added layers of judgment and shame — because of the inherited trauma we have as a culture, and because of Black men historically being lynched or more recently jailed for false claims of sexual assault. This, of course, comes at the expense of the lives of Black women, their mental health and overall wellbeing. These anxieties are why many of the women in the documentary were hesitant to speak up. 

The story in On The Record was able to be told because the culture is changing, and Black women are openly supporting each other. This honest dialogue has saved the lives of women in this documentary and hopefully will go on to save many of its viewers. This needs to be the beginning of a new wave of the #MeToo movement, one that champions and gives space to Black women to really be heard.