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Oprah Winfrey exits Russell Simmons #MeToo documentary, and the filmmakers respond

Kennedys, Dignitaries Attend Funeral For Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Oprah Winfrey, second from left, and Russell Simmons, center, attend the funeral of Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 2009. Winfrey will no longer produce a #MeToo documentary about Simmons premiering at Sundance this month.
(Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey is disassociating herself with a new documentary about Russell Simmons and the #MeToo movement.

In December, Winfrey announced she would serve as executive producer on a still-untitled film from Oscar-nominated directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick that centers on some of the 20 women who have publicly accused Simmons of sexual harassment and assault. The movie was to stream on Apple TV+ following its Jan. 25 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

But on Friday, Winfrey released a statement saying she was removing herself as an EP of the film, meaning it will also not play on Apple TV+, where she has a deal set up through her Harpo Productions.

“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,” said Winfrey. “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.”

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The film, however, will still debut at Sundance, according to its directors. In their own statement, Ziering and Dick said that although they were “disappointed” Winfrey had pulled her name from the project, they were “gratified that Winfrey has unequivocally said she believes and supports the survivors in the film.”

“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,” said the filmmakers. “The film is a beacon of hope for voices that have long been suppressed, and an inspiration for anyone wanting to regain their personal power.”

Winfrey, for her part, made it clear on Friday that she would continue to work with Time’s Up to support those who have been sexually harassed. Tina Tchen, the foundation’s president and CEO, issued a release stating that Time’s Up was “in full support” of those who made allegations against Simmons.

“We support Oprah Winfrey in maintaining that the victims’ stories deserve to be heard on their own terms,” said Tchen. “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.”

Wade Robson, left, and James Safechuck on “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland.”
Wade Robson, left, and James Safechuck during the taping of “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland.”
(Bennett Raglin / OWN Network)

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Winfrey is no stranger to controversy in the documentary field. Last January, the two-part series “Leaving Neverland” — in which two men disclosed what they said was years of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson — debuted at Sundance. When the project premiered on HBO two months later, Winfrey interviewed its two subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, for a one-hour special that was shown immediately following the broadcast of “Leaving Neverland.”

“I haven’t had that much hateration since I did the puppy episode with Ellen [DeGeneres],” Oprah told Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” in April, referring to a 1997 episode of her talk show in which DeGeneres revealed she was a lesbian.

The Simmons documentary has been shrouded in secrecy since news of its premiere was disclosed. Not only has the project’s name yet to be publicly revealed — it is still listed as “Untitled Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering Film” on the Sundance website — but press materials still do not say the movie is about the former head of Def Jam Records. It does, however, say that the film follows Drew Dixon, who told the New York Times in 2017 that she was raped by Simmons while working as an A&R executive at his company.

Simmons has denied all of the accusations of violence made against him since late 2017, when Keri Claussen Khalighi became the first woman to accuse him of sexual abuse in the Los Angeles Times. Shortly after news of the Sundance project broke, Simmons took to Instagram to call out Winfrey directly, saying he found it “troubling” that she had chosen to support the film. Rapper 50 Cent followed with a post of his own, arguing: “I don’t understand why Oprah is going after black men. No Harvey Weinstein, No Epstein, just Michael Jackson and Russell Simmons this ... is sad.”

Representatives for Simmons did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the documentary.


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