Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ON THE RECORD
NR, 97 minutes
During his tenure at Def Jam Records, music impresario Russell Simmons launched the careers of many award-winning superstar acts. But he didn’t do this alone. What was little known before the #MeToo movement – not even discussed in hushed whispers – is how he leveraged his power and privilege to create a cone of silence surrounding the heinous acts he’s alleged to have perpetrated against female colleagues and confidantes. Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s searing documentary, ON THE RECORD, helps give voice to the previously voiceless, brave women empowered to finally tell their stories of sexual assault by Simmons. And their incredibly powerful, moving testimonies are deeply affecting. This is absolutely valuable work, not just in terms of its subject matter, but also in how the discussion is framed with historical context.
Interviews with the warrior women, who came forward after decades of stifling their feelings which severely impacted their personal and professional identities, are handled with a tender touch. The majority of the time is spent on former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon’s devastating experience, along with her rise to well-earned acclaim and success (as well as the aftermath involving yet another music producer, L.A. Reid). But in order to build its case, it also spotlights the events that transpired with other women Simmons assaulted, like Simmons’ former friend Sil Lai Abrams (whose story of complete betrayal shook me to my core), his former talent Sheri Sher (whose journey towards overcoming her assault is equally poignant) and sadly, other women forced to carry an unwanted burden.
In between the dialogue with the accusers, Dick and Ziering set the story in an enlightening historical context utilizing interviews with historians and journalists, citing examples of the sexism and misogyny women – especially women of color – have faced in the music industry and in society at large. Having this framework, and examining what led us to these pervasive problems in the culture, lends gravitas to the portrait painted. Psychologists and sociologists also add to the larger perspective on issues within the black community. Plus, the documentarians capture Dixon’s pressing decision to come forward, capturing the weight of her choice to unburden herself to the New York Times and the after-effect of this bombshell.
It’s a travesty that these women had their fires extinguished by someone who could’ve been the upstanding guy he pretends to be in the public eye, shielding himself behind Buddhist philosophies and ever-present Japamala that now graces his neck as prominent as the gold chains on the artists he worked with back in the heyday of the label. Yet this documentary is a testament to their ability to rise like a phoenix from the charred ashes of their previous lives and speak truth to power.
ON THE RECORD is now streaming on HBOMax.