Oprah Winfrey Steps Away From Russell Simmons Accuser Doc, Pulls From Apple+ (Exclusive)

Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film Still 2 - Publicity - H 2020
Omar Mullick/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The high-profile documentary is scheduled to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.

Oprah Winfrey is stepping away from a documentary that centered on a former music executive who has accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct.

The film has been among the highest profile doc projects set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Winfrey, who until now had served as an executive producer on the film, planned to air it on Apple TV+ following the festival.

“I have decided that I will no longer be executive producer on The Untitled Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary and it will not air on Apple TV+," Winfrey said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "First and foremost, I want it to be known that I unequivocally believe and support the women. Their stories deserve to be told and heard. 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. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are talented filmmakers. I have great respect for their mission but 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. I will be working with Time’s Up to support the victims and those impacted by abuse and sexual harassment.”

Apple’s initial characterization of the project left the primary subject’s name out of logline, which simply read: “A brilliant former music executive who grapples with whether to go public with her story of assault and abuse by a notable figure in the music industry. The film is a profound examination of race, gender, class and intersectionality, and the toll assaults take on their victims and society at large.” The official Sundance description confirmed the subject is, as was widely reported, Drew Dixon, who alleged instances of misconduct initially by Simmons in a 2017 interview with the New York Times. The Def Jam Recordings co-founder had served as Dixon’s boss during her time as an executive at the music label. The alleged rape is said to have occurred in his apartment in 1995; Dixon quit the company shortly after.

Like Winfrey, who threw her support behind the 2019 Sundance / HBO entry Finding Neverland, Dick and Ziering are no stranger to the charged subject of sexual assault. The pair scored an Oscar nomination for The Invisible War, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and explored life after for rape survivors in the U.S. military. In a statement, the filmmakers noted they would move forward with plans to premiere their latest project at the festival. "Revealing hard truths is never easy, and the women in our documentary are all showing extraordinary strength and courage by raising their voices to address sexual abuse in the music industry," they added. "While we are disappointed that Oprah Winfrey is no longer an Executive Producer on the project, we are gratified that Winfrey has unequivocally said she believes and supports the survivors of the film. The #MeToo experiences of Black women deserve to be heard, especially against powerful men, so we will continue with our plans to bring the film to The Sundance Film Festival. The film, more than two years in the making, will be our eighth film to premiere at Sundance. The film is a beacon of hope for voices that have long been suppressed, and an inspiration for anyone wanting to regain their power power."

In their own statement about Winfrey stepping back from the project, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn Dreyfous and Dan Cogan of production company Impact Partners say, "Impact Partners has premiered 49 films at the Sundance Film Festival. Our documentaries, including Icarus and The Cove, have won and been nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s newest film is one of the most powerful documentaries we have ever funded. It is ready for Sundance and we cannot wait for the world to see it. The core mission of Impact Partners is to uphold the independence and artistic vision of filmmakers."

They add, “We have always championed the voices of those who have been wrongly silenced. The women in this film have made a great sacrifice by coming forward to tell their stories in their own words. We are honored to support them. We stand firmly behind the work of the intrepid filmmakers who continue to break new ground by advancing important stories in the public interest.”

In response to Winfrey's decision, Time's Up Foundation president and CEO Tina Tchen said in a statement of her own: “Time's Up is in full support of the survivors who have spoken out about Russell Simmons. These women are brave. We believe them. We support Oprah Winfrey in maintaining that the victims’ stories deserve to be heard on their own terms. Too often, black women are silenced, disbelieved, or even vilified when they speak out. On top of that, for years, these women have been attacked by powerful forces surrounding Russell Simmons – illustrating how difficult it is to speak out against powerful men. And how important it is for powerful men to be held accountable for their actions. As Oprah made clear in her statement, any decision by her and Apple regarding this documentary does not change the underlying facts. We assert Time's Up's unwavering support for these survivors. We are in awe of their courage and strength. We will continue to fight for them, and we will continue to fight for a future where black women are truly heard and believed.”

Jan. 10, 6:00 p.m. Updated with statement from Time's Up and filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.