The first thing I asked Oscar-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick was: What was more difficult, taking on the United States military or Russell Simmons?
“Be nice,” Ziering laughed. “We’ve been through enough.”
Ziering was referring to the hoopla surrounding the duo’s latest effort, “On The Record,” their third documentary about sexual violence. This one is about a group of women who have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of rape. The film’s journey started like a dream when Oprah Winfrey agreed to come on board as executive producer, partnering with the filmmakers in a multi-picture deal for the AppleTV+ platform. There was a honeymoon period as the film was made, which lasted about a year.
But then, out of nowhere, things fell apart.
Ten days before “On The Record” was set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Oprah dropped the project, threatening the survival of the film. Through an incredible feat of gumption, fundraising and mission-driven determination, the filmmakers pulled off their scheduled premiere anyway, inviting the attention of HBO, which recognized the film’s value and offered them a distribution deal. “On The Record” is now available to stream on HBO Max.
But what happened leading up to Sundance is a cautionary tale, a story of a collision between investigative journalism and high powered figures in the entertainment industry whose actions and motives are not necessarily clear. Winfrey’s explanation blamed the filmmakers’ artistry as the reason for withdrawing support, citing inconsistencies in the account of the film’s main subject, Drew Dixon, and other creative differences. But that doesn’t square with what the filmmakers describe as Winfrey’s enthusiastic and consistent support of the project every step of the way– from pitch through production to picture-lock.
“From the moment we showed her a clip and shook her hand… up until the Sundance announcement, it was everything you would have ever wanted in a partner and more,” Ziering said. “For close to a year, Oprah was an active, impassioned collaborator and the film would not be what it is today without her.”
Winfrey never publicly explained what the creative differences were, or why she waited until weeks before the premiere to express them. But her abrupt exit raises deeper questions of what transpired behind the scenes and other possible motives for her action. Winfrey could not be reached for comment.
In a written statement, Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content for HBO Max praised the film for its portrayal of the “often overlooked experiences of women of color when it comes to allegations of sexual assault.
“I am proud that HBO Max is able to offer these courageous women and the filmmakers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, the large platform they deserve to share their story,” Aubrey said.
Ziering and Dick are no strangers to controversy, having spent most of the decade examining systemic injustice and holding powerful institutions to account. Their 2012 film, The Invisible War uncovered a disturbing pattern of sexual assault in the United States military, earning the duo an Oscar nomination and leading to policy change. “The Hunting Ground” (2015) examined the rape culture on college campuses; and most recently, “The Bleeding Edge” (2018) took on the multi-billion-dollar medical device industry through stories of patient injury and corporate neglect.
But the filmmakers say their experience with “On the Record” constituted one of the greatest challenges of their careers, forcing them to confront complex issues around race, power and celebrity.
“I learned a lot,” Ziering says. “You have this sense of power and celebrity from the outside, about the ways in which that all operates, but experiencing it from the inside, for me, was very different. It makes me look at the world and what is presented a little differently now.”
Though Ziering and Dick have ample experience dealing with sexual assault survivors, this was the first time they sought to tell a story of sexual assault set in the black community and the more complex burdens it places on women of color. As white filmmakers, they were sensitized to what Ziering describes as a “quintuple bind” — layers of additional obstacles black women face when making sexual assault allegations public.
While most women face general cultural prejudice, the #metoo movement among whites was largely heralded as a breakthrough. But Ziering says black women must also contend with a racially biased criminal justice system, a history of abuse and hypersexualization of black bodies rooted in the legacy of slavery, as well as pernicious racist myths depicting black men as predators.
The film hints at all this as it chronicles former music executive Drew Dixon’s decision to go public with allegations that Simmons raped her while she worked for him at Def Jam Records. In 1995, Dixon was a talented 24-year-old rising star whose decision to pair Mary J. Blige and Method Man for the remix “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” turned it into a hip hop classic. It was around that time Dixon says she was assaulted, and her account is eerily similar to allegations made by other women in the film including journalist Sil Lai Abrams and actress and screenwriter Jenny Lumet. (To date, 20 women have accused Simmons of sexual misconduct, though Simmons denies all allegations of non-consensual sex.) The film takes pains to show the long-term impact of assault, which in Dixon’s case, led to her burying her trauma and self-exiling from the music industry altogether, especially after a subsequent stint at Arista Records included more sexual advances from executive L.A. Reid.
Interspersed with Dixon’s story, the film includes social commentary from black feminist intellectuals and activists including Joan Morgan, Tarana Burke and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who describe the pressures on black women to demonstrate group loyalty at any cost, for fear negative disclosures could intensify the effects of racism.
“I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon explains of her two-decade silence. “I loved the culture.”
Did similar concerns motivate Winfrey’s withdrawal? After Sundance announced the film in its line-up, it became clear that a film described to the public as a broad look at sexual assault in the entertainment industry appeared to focus more squarely on Simmons. The hip hop mogul then took to Instagram to pen an open letter to Winfrey, in which he flattered her and recounted moments in their friendship. “This is why it’s so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentary,” dismissing the assault allegations by admitting to being “a playboy.” Later, he was joined by rapper 50 Cent who posted a photo of Simmons and Winfrey together with the caption: “I don’t understand why Oprah is going after black men.”
These public declarations suggest that perhaps the guise of casting aspersions on black men at a tender political moment in Trump’s America was too risky a proposition, even for Winfrey. At a time when rising white supremacy threatens vulnerable minority groups such as Jews and African Americans; when modern-day lynchings, such as the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are all too frequent; when an innocent Central Park bird watcher like Christian Cooper is threatened for being African American, it is possible that the world’s highest-profile black woman chose to protect black men.
But the real reason or reasons Winfrey bailed on the project remain a mystery. The filmmakers declined to describe what happened away from public view. But their shock at the outcome indicates that the circumstances surrounding Winfrey’s departure add up to more than a simple dissolution of partnership – the result of so-called creative differences, which is routine in Hollywood.
“We were blindsided,” Ziering says. Winfrey’s exit not only jeopardized this film but extinguished other works in a series. “We never saw this coming in a million years.”
“The reality is, everyone loved the film,” Dick said. “We have emails from everyone, from Oprah’s production company staff, everyone at Apple, it’s just effusive from beginning to end.”
They carried on, because they had no choice. “We had to stand behind these women,” Dick said, “because if we were to pull the film out of Sundance, then all these questions would come out about the uncertainty of their stories, and we couldn’t risk that. These women were courageous enough to be a part of this documentary and we stood behind them like we stand behind all of our survivors. We’re not going to back down.”
Though their intransigence paid off, I asked if the obstacles they faced suggest that maybe #metoo hasn’t been as successful as we think.
“I think we’ve made enormous strides,” Ziering said, “but it is like one step forward, two steps back.”
Ziering attributes her determination in telling these stories to the legacy of her late father, Sigi Ziering, a Holocaust survivor.
“When my Dad re-emerged into society, people didn’t believe him about what he’d gone through,” she said. “He never even really talked to us about it. I guess he decided it was too horrible to share and something he had to deal with privately. That really shook me, so I feel a deep responsibility and privilege to help other people tell their stories when they can’t.”
Danielle Berrin is a writer in Los Angeles.