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Movie Review: 'On The Record' With Russell Simmons' Accusers

May 24, 2020
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A new documentary called "On The Record" alleges hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons sexually harassed and raped multiple women. It debuts Wednesday on the new streaming service HBO Max. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the film, which nearly didn't see public release, makes a compelling case. A warning - this story will feature detailed discussion of sexual harassment and assault.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Drew Dixon was an up-and-coming record executive in the '90s at pioneering hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings when, she says, the company's co-founder Russell Simmons began sexually harassing her in the office, trying to kiss her and exposing himself.

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DREW DIXON: I thought that he was, like, this tragic ADD puppy dog that I just had to keep retraining.

DEGGANS: Later, she says, Simmons lured her to his apartment and raped her. Afterwards, she took a shower with her clothes on and tried to process what happened.

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DIXON: Nothing about me mattered. Nothing about anything that makes me who I am mattered. I was some physical thing that he utilized for his pleasure.

DEGGANS: Dixon's story, including allegations she was harassed in another job by former Arista Records chief executive L.A. Reid, forms the spine of "On The Record." The film features allegations against Simmons from eight women and says a total of 20 have accused him of misconduct or assault.

Simmons denies forcing sex on anyone. Reid, who left as chairman at Epic Records in 2017 after a sexual harassment claim, gave the movie a written statement, calling Dixon's allegations, quote, "a complete misrepresentation and fabrication." Both men declined to be interviewed.

"On The Record" does a good job showing how black women have felt caught in the middle, underrecognized by the #MeToo movement and criticized by other black people for tearing down black men. Tarana Burke, the black woman who coined the term #MeToo, explains.

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TARANA BURKE: Black women's need and really duty that we feel to protect black men is definitely a hindrance to protecting ourselves. There's this added layer in the black community that we have to contend with of, like, oh, you're going to put this before the race, right? You're going to put this because this - you let this thing happen to you. Now we have to pay for it as a race, and then we're silenced even more.

DEGGANS: Other black female cultural critics, including Sil Lai Abrams, a former executive assistant at Def Jam, speak eloquently on how rap became more misogynist with the rise of gangsta rap in the '80s and '90s. Later, Abrams says she was sexually assaulted by Simmons. She describes the feelings which led her to a suicide attempt after the attack.

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SIL LAI ABRAMS: And rage - just rage over what he had done. You're a chew toy for men of power. And this is your life.

DEGGANS: "On The Record" was supposed to debut on Apple TV Plus, but media star Oprah Winfrey, who was an executive producer, removed her name from the film in January, telling the New York Times she felt that there were inconsistencies in Dixon's story and other problems. Simmons and rap star 50 Cent had pressured her publicly to step away, citing some of the same arguments about tearing down black men that the film criticizes for silencing black women.

I wish Winfrey had been more specific with her misgivings. It would be troubling to learn there are inconsistencies the film doesn't explore. But other criticisms that it gives short shrift to other assault allegations or doesn't explore the context of misogyny in hip-hop don't really hold water. Instead, "On The Record" makes a powerful case. But left unanswered is a question for all of us. Once the silence is broken, what comes next?

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN SONG, "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.