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Behind Oprah’s Russell Simmons Doc Defection: Filmmakers Blindsided, Accusers Vow to Move Forward

Directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick say they have an obligation to screen their film, titled 'On the Record,' at Sundance: "We don’t want to in any way impugn these women."

Last June, Oprah Winfrey and Apple signed on to a hot-button project — a documentary about sexual assault in the music industry. The partnership seemed to provide an extraordinary platform for the film and its makers, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, as well as several African-American survivors, a demographic that has received scant media attention in the #MeToo era. But on Jan. 10, just 15 days before the film, titled On the Record, was set to make its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Winfrey abruptly dropped the documentary with little explanation. “In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured, and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision,” she said in a statement. Dick and Ziering say they were told just 20 minutes before Winfrey went public with the news.

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Her departure was a dramatic blow for the project, which was to have helped launch a docuseries called Toxic Workplace on AppleTV+ that would have examined a broad swath of sexual misconduct at work. The film will debut in Park City as planned on Jan. 25, but now sales agency UTA is scrambling to find a new distributor. In a further wrinkle, Apple has pulled the plug on the series, for which Winfrey, Dick and Ziering had already begun taping interviews, sources say (Apple has declined to comment).

“It was very disappointing and upsetting,” says Ziering. “We were concerned about the survivors and what the hell this is going to do to them. That was our first thought. ‘Oh my God. Let’s tell everybody and figure this out.’”

Before #MeToo became a movement, Dick and Ziering were its unofficial chroniclers. Their 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military, helped inspire five congressional hearings on the issue and 39 pieces of legislation; their 2015 movie, The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses, screened on thousands of campuses and led to a poignant Academy Awards moment, when 50 survivors appeared onstage at the Dolby Theatre during Lady Gaga’s performance of the Oscar-nominated song from the film, “Til It Happens to You.”

As the once hidden world of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry began to crack open amid reporting on Harvey Weinstein in the fall of 2017, Dick and Ziering got a call from Impact Partners, the film-financing company behind the Oscar-winning documentaries Icarus and The Cove, which encouraged them to start chronicling what was happening.

“At that point, because Kirby and I had already done two films in the sexual assault space, Impact came to us and said, ‘You guys should really really be back in there,'” recalls Ziering. “And we said, ‘OK. Let’s just start collecting stories and see what happens,’ with no expectation or game plan. Like OK, here we are, here’s what we do, here’s what we’ve done. If you want to talk, we’ll listen.'”

A mutual friend introduced the filmmakers to Drew Dixon, a former executive at Def Jam Recordings who was trying to decide whether to go public with an allegation that her former boss, Russell Simmons, raped her in 1995 (Simmons has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex). In a process that is documented in Dick and Ziering’s film, Dixon grapples with the impact Simmons had on her life and career and ultimately decides to share her story with The New York Times in a December 2017 story. “We said, ‘We totally get what you’re going through,’” says Ziering. “What if we just started filming and you don’t sign a release. Whatever you decide to do is fine, but we just record your journey, because no one’s really seen someone struggle with even the thought of coming forward.”

The film, which The Hollywood Reporter has seen, also includes interviews with other Simmons accusers, including author and domestic-violence activist Sil Lai Abrams, who alleged in a 2018 THR story that the music mogul raped her in 1994; Sherri Hines of the hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies, who told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that Simmons raped her in 1983; and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who claimed in a 2017 guest column in THR that Simmons raped her in 1991. Additionally there are interviews with activists like #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, journalist Kierna Mayo and civil rights lawyer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who touch on the complex burdens black women have faced in telling their stories of sexual assault, including, as Burke describes it in the film, “black women’s need to protect black men.” “There was this exploration and discussion around these issues, especially among black feminists, that has been going on for decades,” Dick says. “But it wasn’t reaching the mainstream. It seemed like this was unexplored territory.” 

Despite these many voices, the 95-minute movie focuses primarily on Dixon’s experience, because, Dick says, “She was so stunning, and so charismatic. She had such an amazing story and such deep insights into her experience that it just opened up a whole world to us. We thought if we were feeling, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world of understanding these issues,’ audiences would feel the same way.”

It may have been the filmmakers’ focus on Dixon at the exclusion of other womens’ stories that troubled Winfrey. In the statement she released when she announced she was removing her name from the film, the media titan noted that she “unequivocally” supported and believed the women but said, “Given the filmmakers’ desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it’s best to step aside.” When Winfrey asked the filmmakers to hold the movie back from Sundance and keep working on it, they responded, “This movie is going to Sundance with or without Oprah,” according to a source close to Winfrey. As executive producer, Winfrey could have prevented the film from going to the festival, but decided instead to release it to the filmmakers.

Ziering and Dick say they were blindsided by Winfrey’s change of heart about the film, that she saw a cut in June very similar to the one going to Sundance, loved it and committed to it then and there. Apple and Winfrey’s Harpo Productions submitted the Sundance application, and Harpo announced the film on Dec. 3 in a news release sent the day before the Sundance lineup was unveiled. 

The Sundance announcement offered only a vague description of the doc as one that centers on “a brilliant former hip hop executive [who] grapples with whether to go public about her rape by one of the most powerful men in the music industry.” But THR and other outlets began to identify the mystery “powerful” figure as Simmons, who had been accused publicly of sexual assault by at least 20 women.

That revelation prompted Simmons’ friend 50 Cent to tweet of Winfrey on Dec. 10, “I just want to know why she is only going after her own. When it’s clear the penalties have been far more extreme for African American men.” The tweet was a reference to Winfrey’s support of another controversial documentary that went to Sundance last year, Leaving Neverland, which tarnished the legacy of another black music titan, Michael Jackson, as it chronicled the recollections of two men who claim they were repeatedly sexually abused by Jackson as children. On Instagram on Dec. 13, Simmons shared a picture of himself talking about meditation with Winfrey on her OWN show, Super Soul Sunday, in 2014. “Dearest OPRAH,” Simmons captioned the photo, “You have been a shining light to my family and my community… This is why it’s so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentry [sic].” 

At some point between the Dec. 4 Sundance announcement and Jan. 10, Winfrey changed her mind about taking the documentary to the festival. “We felt that we couldn’t change course,” Ziering says. “Once there’s a Sundance announcement and you make a film on sexual assault, we know, having been in this game, that you don’t want to do anything that would be interpreted as succumbing to harassment and intimidation. We don’t want to in any way impugn these women. We weren’t going to let their voices be diminished in any way. We have made the commitment to them that we were going to Sundance, and that we stood behind them and their courage.”

Since her Jan. 10 statement, Winfrey has remained mum about what she specifically meant by “there is more work to be done,” and she’s declined to comment further. Speculation swirled that she and Apple were caving to Simmons and 50 Cent’s online criticism or that the former was suing. But sources say there has been neither legal action nor any threat of a lawsuit. Winfrey’s friend Gayle King, who was often at the media mogul’s side while she promoted Leaving Neverland, said on a Jan. 15 broadcast of CBS This Morning, “Russell has done a public and private campaign to convince [Winfrey]. She knows the messages that sends: That she was muzzled. Nothing could be further from the case. She thought the documentary needed to breathe a little bit more and be put in context of the times. These allegations were many years ago, and now we’re in 2020.”

King’s comment bothered one of the accusers in the film —Abrams — who says, “I know that Oprah believes us and while that’s heartening, it’s troubling to see [King’s remarks] because what it implies is that perhaps what we say is rape would in other times be just seen as partying. Is what’s being said [about] the hip-hop era in the ’90s and [to] those who were in that sphere, ‘That’s what you signed up for’? Is the price that we have to pay that rape is questionable depending on the context of the times?”

On Jan. 13, a Washington publicist representing a group of Simmons’ accusers as well as the film’s executive producer Abigail Disney issued a press release saying, “Russell Simmons and his enablers cannot intimidate us, bully us or ignore us.” On the Jan. 15 CBS This Morning broadcast, three of Simmons’ accusers appeared, including Dixon, who said. “I hope that black women and girls become more visible as a result of this documentary.”

Some critics of the move to drop the film are singling out Apple even more than Winfrey. After all, Apple could have continued to back the film even after Winfrey bowed out as an executive producer. Many pointed to Apple’s decision to pull the film The Banker from the AFI lineup — thus ruining its awards-season prospects — after allegations surfaced that the son of the man on which the film is based raped his half-sisters. The son is not featured in the film, and the decision struck many as a capitulation.

“Apple is now two for two in not backing filmmakers,” a source involved with The Banker says.

Former A&R executive Dorothy Carvello, whose 2018 book Anything for a Hit chronicles rampant #MeToo issues in the business, says Apple is acting in self-interest because it is so entwined with the music industry.

“The men in the music industry protect each other and continue to do so,” says Carvello. “Apple, which is backing Oprah, has given deals to men who they didn’t vet. Everyone wants to know why #MeToo hasn’t hit the music business. It’s here. But the music business doesn’t want to address it.”

As for prospects for Dick and Ziering’s film in the Sundance marketplace, Impact’s Dan Cogan says, “We’ve already received incoming calls from distributors about the film, and this attention has simply raised the film’s profile. I think when people see it, it will exceed their expectations in how powerful and emotional and extraordinary it is. And I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding a new home.”

Jenny Raskin, Cogan’s partner at Impact, underscores that they’ve faced obstacles before with other films that take on powerful figures, and they are prepared to roll with the challenge of bowing at the festival without two mega-brands in their corner.

“Although it was wonderful to have the partnership with Oprah and Apple, this is what we do,” she says. “We’re gonna do what we always do with films, bring them to market and sell them.” 

This story appears in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.