At Sundance, ‘On the Record,’ ‘The Assistant’ tackle sex abuse in the entertainment industry
No documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival was more explosive or divisive than “Leaving Neverland,” Dan Reed’s film about two men who alleged that they had been sexually abused as young boys by Michael Jackson. For every viewer who found its testimony not just persuasive but also galvanizing, you could count on any number of Jackson fans to come out of the woodwork, decrying the movie (sight unseen) as a pack of slanderous lies. But the denunciation of “Leaving Neverland” in some quarters was, in a way, its greatest vindication: It only strengthened the movie’s point about how our devotion to our favorite celebrities, our natural deference toward people in positions of authority, can blind us to their abuse of that authority.
That insight comes up again and again in “On the Record,” Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s powerful, infuriating and embattled new documentary about the numerous accusations of sexual misconduct and assault that have emerged against the music mogul Russell Simmons. Crucially, however, the movie never falls into the trap of making Simmons its true subject or raison d’être. His role as the pioneering “godfather of hip-hop” is duly acknowledged, but you will leave “On the Record” thinking more about the unacknowledged contributions of many women who worked alongside him, some of whom note that they sacrificed jobs and careers in the music industry to escape further trauma and abuse.
The most prominent of these subjects is Drew Dixon, who speaks with great tenderness about her longtime love for hip-hop and how she landed what she initially thought was a dream job as an executive at Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings. Her sense of violation thus registers all the more acutely when we hear her searing on-camera account of how Simmons harassed her for months at work and then raped her at his Manhattan apartment in 1995. (Simmons has denied all allegations.) That story was first published by the New York Times in 2017, mere months after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein brought about his downfall and gave rise to the global #MeToo movement.
Dick and Ziering had been making documentaries about institutional sexual abuse long before that movement came about; their previous explorations of the subject include “Twist of Faith,” “The Hunting Ground” and “The Invisible War.” To put it mildly, they are no strangers to blowback. But they have never weathered a setback as damaging as they have with “On the Record,” which arrived here in Park City, Utah, already on the defensive. Earlier this month, after the film’s Sundance premiere had already been announced, their highest-profile collaborator, Oprah Winfrey, said she would no longer be serving as an executive producer, citing creative differences with the filmmakers and effectively ending the movie’s planned streaming release through Apple TV+.
Dick and Ziering have said that they were blindsided by Winfrey’s decision, the reasons for which have occasioned much reporting as well as speculation. Winfrey has rejected the notion that her decision was made in response to pressure from Simmons, who had contacted her in recent weeks urging her to distance herself from the movie. (Whether that pressure had any effect, surely no criticism she received with regard to “On the Record” could come close to rivaling the hostility she experienced from Jackson fans after she threw her support last year behind the subjects of “Leaving Neverland.”)
In any event, the film and its attendant controversies have served to illuminate the extraordinarily sensitive nature of what happens when survivors make the decision to go public — especially against a public figure who, like Simmons, has repeatedly denied the accusations against him — and the re-traumatization that can occur when those accusations are cast into doubt. They also speak to the conflicting priorities at play when a document of abuse must also double as a creative and commercial enterprise.
Winfrey, for her part, has expressed unwavering belief in the survivors interviewed in “On the Record,” who include the activist Sil Lai Abrams, the director Jenny Lumet, the hip-hop artist Sherri Hines and the model Keri Claussen Khalighi. A New York Times piece cited Winfrey’s apparent concern that their stories weren’t sufficiently represented or contextualized in the film, which strikes me as a fair critique but not a damaging one. Although not every account is accorded the same dramatic weight and screen time as Dixon’s, the integrity and credibility of those accounts, individually and collectively, is never in doubt.
Insofar as many of those stories have already been published elsewhere, the strengths of “On the Record” are not primarily those of an exposé. It’s a vital, deeply moving compendium of on-screen testimony, yes, and it draws us into an astonishing intimacy with its survivors. But it’s also a thoughtful, sharply argued recalibration of how we think about truth telling in the age of #MeToo, specifically the difficulties that face women — especially women of color — who seek to come forward. Dick and Ziering include a clip of Anita Hill’s congressional testimony against Clarence Thomas, underscoring their subjects’ point that when a woman speaks out, she must suffer the indignity of having to articulate her abuser’s acts in graphic detail, while he often has the benefit of distancing himself from them.
“On the Record” also has much to say about the misogyny that pervades the entertainment business in general and the hip-hop world in particular, and the likelihood of sexual harassment and assault in an industry where the violent objectification of women is part of the cultural ether. Several interviewees speak about the specific pressure on black women to protect their abusers, so as not to perpetuate the stereotype of the sexually rapacious black male — a noxious myth that has been used to justify lynchings and other crimes against black men for centuries. In one of the most wrenching moments, Dixon explains why it took her decades to go on the record: “I took it for the team. I didn’t want to let the culture down. I loved the culture. I loved Russell, too.”
With Apple no longer involved, “On the Record” will likely take some time before it finds its way to an audience, though it will surely find its way eventually. In the meantime, audiences interested in learning more about the insidiousness of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, especially in the era before #MeToo, will soon have the chance to see Kitty Green’s quietly devastating new drama, “The Assistant.” The movie, which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last fall and is playing this week in Park City, will be released by Bleecker Street in theaters Jan. 31; it’s perfectly timed to coincide with the sexual assault trial of Harvey Weinstein, its obvious if never-named villain. (Both “The Assistant” and “On the Record” are backed by Level Forward, a startup that supports projects driven by women and people of color.)
Green, whose own background is in documentaries (“Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” “Casting JonBenet”), here adopts a style of low-key minimalism that throws the magnitude of what she’s showing us (and pointedly not showing us) into stark relief. “The Assistant” unfolds over the course of a single day at a nondescript New York film production office where Jane (an excellent Julia Garner), recently hired as junior assistant to a Weinstein-like movie mogul, is both the first to arrive and the last to leave.
The movie’s virtues are those of understatement and concentration. Green and Garner hold us rapt with the minutiae of Jane’s everyday routine: the making of coffee, the washing of dishes, the printing of box office reports and, in one alarming early detail, the scrubbing of a stain off the couch in the boss’ office. Jane is easily the lowest on the office totem pole, but for that reason she also has perhaps the clearest, most agonizing view of what’s going on. She’s the one who takes the irate phone calls from the boss’ wife, who oversees every detail of the boss’ schedule, and who must interact with the young women who turn up at the office, looking either oblivious to what awaits them or shell shocked by what they’ve experienced.
Unlike the Oscar-nominated “Bombshell,” a glossier, clumsier dramatization of workplace sexual harassment, “The Assistant” never shows us the acts of abuse and assault directly; we’re limited strictly to Jane’s vantage. This is a movie about the helplessness of those forced to bear witness, even those who, like Jane, struggle to do the right thing and report their findings to a system that shields the powerful and predatory at every turn. Few movies have spoken more quietly, and consequently more damningly, than “The Assistant.” The silence of this movie is devastating because we recognize it all too clearly as our own.
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