Rating: (4 stars)
In the absorbing, emotional gut-punch of a documentary “On the Record,” former music executive Drew Dixon leads viewers through her decision, in 2017, to go public with allegations that rap impresario Russell Simmons raped and sexually harassed her while she was working at his label, Def Jam records.
In the wake of reporting about Harvey Weinstein and similar accusations against Simmons, Dixon was torn: For more than 20 years she had buried her experience, quitting the music business she thrived in and living in the suspended animation of deep-seated denial.
With intimacy, tact and extraordinary access to their subject, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering chronicle Dixon’s decision to speak with the New York Times, an agonizing process that involves revisiting her past trauma, examining the misogynist cultures of rap and pop music that she once defended, and coming to terms with the unfathomable loss she has suffered, personally, professionally and creatively. (The filmmakers have addressed issues of sexual violence in two previous films, “The Hunting Ground,” about campus rape, and “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the military.)
Statuesque and self-possessed, her blue-green eyes seeming to lock in with the camera as she speaks, Dixon makes for a compelling and credible protagonist. (Washington viewers will surely remember her appearances on the stump for her mother, former mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon.) “On the Record” would be mesmerizing enough simply as a portrait of a young woman who, having majored in history at Stanford University, pursued the music she loved all the way to its sizzling epicenter in the 1990s, when rap and hip-hop were exploding. When she was hired as director of A&R at Def Jam — in charge of scouting and signing emerging artists — she recalls, “I couldn’t have scripted it better.” She excelled at her job, producing a well-regarded soundtrack for the hip-hop documentary “The Show,” and putting Mary J. Blige and Method Man together for the classic remix of “I’ll Be There for You” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
The denouement, when it comes, is excruciating to visualize. But Dixon never flinches and, even at their most graphic, her descriptions of the violations she alleges are always centered not on the exploitative and disgusting actions of the perpetrator but on the experience — and profound psychic cost — of enduring them. After leaving Def Jam, she worked as an A&R executive at Arista, where she says she encountered constant sexual pressure from label chief L.A. Reid; she eventually left the music business altogether.
Dixon’s story alone would make for an engrossing film. But Dick and Ziering wisely pull the lens back to enlist an impressive group of black feminist intellectuals to comment throughout “On the Record.” This turns an already worthy portrait of individual courage into a breathtaking and deeply moving survey of the precarious position occupied by women of color throughout history, as they have been forced to navigate the dehumanizing and hypersexualizing stereotypes of white supremacy as well as oppression within an African American community that expected loyalty no matter how grievous the costs. “I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon says at one point. “I loved the culture.”
Along with such scholars, writers and activists as Kimberle Crenshaw, Tarana Burke and Joan Morgan, Dixon and a number of fellow accusers — including Sil Lai Abrams and Jenny Lumet — become a powerful chorus, their voices gathering force to make “On the Record” not just a riveting piece of investigative filmmaking, but a comprehensive and crucially important historical text — an accomplishment all the more remarkable for being so economical (the film runs to an efficient hour and a half).
When “On the Record” was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, executive producer Oprah Winfrey took her name off the project, citing vague problems with “inconsistencies” in Dixon’s story. That now feels like a mere distraction from what is a much bigger and more enduring story. As “On the Record” reaches its simultaneously inspiring and deflating conclusion, 20 women have come forward to accuse Simmons, who declined to be interviewed and whose denials are given fair play by way of clips and on-screen text. Their individual voices may not be literally captured in “On the Record.” But in this anguishing and essential film, they are heard — and the implications of being silenced for so long come through loud and shamefully clear.
Unrated. Available via HBO Max. Contains profanity, suggestive images and disturbing descriptions of sexual harassment and violence. 97 minutes.