Oprah Winfrey insists exit from Sundance documentary ‘not a victory’ for Russell Simmons

Oprah Winfrey is addressing the controversy surrounding her exit from a Sundance documentary about Russell Simmons' accusers.
(Jordan Strauss / Associated Press)

Once again, Oprah Winfrey is here to remind everyone that her exit from a Sundance documentary featuring Russell Simmons’ accusers had nothing to do with pressure she received from the music mogul.

Appearing on Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning,” Winfrey addressed the media storm surrounding her decision to remove herself as executive producer of “On the Record,” a film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering centering on multiple women who have accused Simmons of sexual misconduct. In keeping with her statements so far, the OWN mastermind doubled down on the move, reiterating concerns that the documentary was not ready to premiere at this weekend’s Sundance Film Festival.

“In all experiences of my life, and particularly when I’m in a crisis, the only question for me is, ‘What is the right thing to do ... for me?’” Winfrey told the CBS hosts.

“Before the public pressure had started, before Russell had gone with his Instagram, I had gone to the filmmakers, and I had said to them, ‘Houston, I think we have a problem here,’ ... I said, ‘I think we need to pull out of Sundance, and if we can’t pull out of Sundance, I’m going to have to take my name off. I don’t want to have to take my name off because it’s going to be a big hullabaloo.’”

A “big hullabaloo indeed. Winfrey made headlines when she left the documentary in early January, about a month after her involvement was announced as part of her producing deal with Apple TV+ — where the project was originally set to land before the veteran TV host jumped ship.


Winfrey also dismissed claims that she failed black women by allowing herself to be “intimidated” by Simmons, calling the idea “ridiculous.” When reminded that some have perceived her retreat as a win for Simmons — who has publicly and privately expressed his disappointment with her involvement — she fired back.

“This is not a victory for Russell, and I unequivocally say that I did not pull out because of Russell,” she said. “This is not a victory lap for him. I cannot be silenced by a Russell Simmons after all I’ve been through ... I stand with the women. I support the women. And I do hope people will see the film.”

Simmons has denied all allegations, saying in a November 2017 statement to The Times, ““Let me be crystal clear and very direct. Abusing women in any way shape or form violates the very core of my being.”

Shortly after Winfrey announced her departure, the Los Angeles Times sat down with Dick and Ziering, who recounted the damaging aftermath of the alleged blindside and recalled their cordial interactions with Winfrey’s team leading up to it.

When Oprah Winfrey signed on to produce a documentary about Russell Simmons’ accusers, no one expected what would transpire. Here’s a timeline of those events.

Jan. 17, 2020

“She loved, loved, loved what we did,” Ziering said. “And then she saw it numerous times throughout the editing process. We had a very close working relationship and very, very positive — enthusiastically positive. There weren’t any issues.”


As in her original public statement, Winfrey insisted on “CBS This Morning” that she fully believes and supports Simmons’ accusers, especially considering her own #MeToo experiences at a young age. However, she thought the film could benefit from more context and accuser interviews, as well as tackling certain “inconsistencies” that had been brought to her attention.

In a piece published last week in the New York Times, Winfrey explained that people in her circle had challenged the account of one of Simmons’ most vocal rape accusers, Drew Dixon, but did not elaborate on the specific concerns in question.

“I don’t care about awards. I just care about getting it right,” Winfrey said Tuesday on CBS. “I believe that the women’s voices deserve to be heard, and as an executive producer, I also was in a position where I thought some things were not right. ... I’ve always been in the position, as an executive producer, if I say, ‘I want changes,’ usually those are done. So what this has taught me is, don’t put your name on anything that you don’t have creative control over.”

Music mogul Russell Simmons goes straight at Oprah Winfrey, chiding her for executive produce a film featuring a woman who has accused him of rape.

Dec. 13, 2019

“On the Record” is still set to debut Saturday at Sundance, where the filmmakers will be on the lookout for a new distributor.

“We wish we were going with Apple and Ms. Winfrey. I mean, we do. But it’s bigger than those two, really,” Dick told The Times last week. “We feel the film is completely solid, addresses everything very powerfully. We know that it does because the responses of hundreds of people from all walks of life have been so glowing and enthusiastic.

“We stand by the film, we stand by the survivors’ stories completely, we know that the veracity is completely locked down. We think the film is strong and we are very hopeful that audiences at Sundance will feel the same.”