'On the Record': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Untitled Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Film -Documentary- SPLASH 2020
Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Photo by Omar Mullick
An emotionally revealing doc that sticks to the skin.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's controversial new doc spotlights women — in particular Drew Dixon — who have publicly accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault and misconduct.

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s poignant documentary On the Record sheds new light on some of the women who have recently come forward to publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault. Before the film even premiered at Sundance, it was mired in controversy as producer Oprah Winfrey pulled her support from the project, citing “inconsistencies" in the story of the film's central victim.

What has unfortunately gotten lost in the Winfrey/Simmons discussions is that the doc doesn’t actually convey a vendetta against Simmons as much as it puts the spotlight on Drew Dixon and her successful but short-lived music career as an A&R executive at Def Jam Records and Arista. Through the eyes of Dixon, the doc's main figure, we get the rare chance to see the "before" and "after" of her trajectory from silent victim to vocal survivor. The overall result is an intimate look at what is at stake when rape victims decide whether or not to tell their stories.

The filmmakers are more than fair to Simmons, including video of his on-camera denials and written statements. But by the end, we’ve seen multiple women recount how he pinned them down (that specific language of “pinned down” is used by numerous accusers); his denials just land like more violence.

In both subject matter and style, the film follows in the footsteps of the Dick and Ziering exposés The Invisible War, which called out the sexual assault epidemic in the military, and Oscar-nominated The Hunting Ground, which did the same for college campuses nationwide. Shot primarily in direct-to-camera close-ups enveloped by gold-toned lighting, the doc feels more like a fireside chat than a punishing exposé meant to overwhelm. With each subject interview we recognize the backgrounds as homey indoor spaces, yet they are completely out of focus, giving the viewer no choice but to look directly at these women, to see them as human beings; the tools of cinema are being used to keep them from being re-victimized onscreen.

Terrence Blanchard’s score wraps just enough gauze around his somber-side-of-jazz signature, delivering something that evokes both lamentation and praise. The artfully placed music cues have a way of effortlessly breaking open the emotional truth of a scene. Yet Dick and Ziering fill the story with sustained moments of quiet reflection and stick with a stately pace that actually works.

Visually, the film finds a way to keep the routine on-the-go activities of Dixon’s life interesting. We see her driving, taking calls, going for a run and drinking wine with a friend. As she walks down the Brooklyn block where slain rapper Notorious B.I.G. used to sell drugs in the 1990s, she says with a comforting smile: “Biggie had my back.” We even get to see Dixon get her thick, curly hair pressed straight, a ritual that is familiar to a lot of black women (or anyone with a flatiron) and is one of the ways the film takes care to affirm black female identity through its visual language.

On the Record features on-the-go interviews with Dixon and sit-downs with half a dozen other women who say Simmons assaulted them. Experts like activist Tarana Burke, law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and former Ebony editor in chief Kierna Mayo put Dixon’s story in much-needed historical and cultural context. They call out the long and painful history of the hyper-sexualization of black female bodies that justifies rape at any cost. Mayo, in particular, who worked as a music journalist in the 1990s and knew Dixon then, points out how Dixon losing her music career not only hurt her, but kept her talent from the world.

Smart, beautiful and sartorially chill, Dixon makes you want to lean in when she speaks. There’s something unassuming yet powerful about her as she walks through various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, giving us a visual tour of her time working in the music industry during the 1990s. Other than when she’s being photographed by The New York Times, she wears little to no makeup, her hair often messy-looking, and despite the extensive interviews in the movie, you get the sense that she is otherwise a quiet, introverted person.

In the one formal interview setup where Dixon looks “camera-ready,” she gives her account of the rape in harrowing detail. You can see her expertly clamping down on tears, physically contorting herself not to let them fall. Later, when we see her buy a copy of the Times article in which she goes public with her story, Dixon finally breaks down while sitting in a cafe. She covers her face with her hand so we can only hear her. You get a sense of the bulletproof exterior she has cultivated that has kept her both safe and emotionally paralyzed.

Overall, On the Record is a stunning feat of complexity that’s both contained and expansive. On a macro level, what Dick and Ziering are able to do in the doc is make visible ways that systemic sexism and misogyny deprive women of their livelihoods. The film, at its core, is about how survivors telling their stories, if and when they choose to, can help sexual assault victims transform the trauma buried inside. Dixon indeed transforms before our eyes. Her transition from victim to survivor also shows us what traumatic recovery, an opaque concept for many, actually looks like in the practical details of a person’s everyday life. Here we find that her daily life, although uniquely hers, doesn’t look that much different from our own.

Cast: Drew Dixon, Si Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw
Directors: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Writers: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, Sara Newens
Producers: Jamie Rogers, Amy Herdy, Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering
Executive producers: John H. N. Fisher & Jennifer Caldwell, Robert Pasin & Muriel Quinn, Julie Smolyansky, Jenny Raskin, Ann, Stephen & Jayne Lovell, Adam & Melony Lewis, Mari Snyder Johnson, Debbie McLeod, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Barbara & Eric Dobkin, Patty Quillin, Regina K. Scully, Ian Darling, Abigail E. Disney, Dan Cogan
Director of photography: Ava Berkofsky, Thaddeus Wadleigh
Editor: Sara Newens
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Music: Willa Yudell
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)


95 minutes