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‘On the Record’ Review: A reexamination and renewal of #MeToo, through the words of Black women

The new documentary is vital, intelligent and the best of 2020 so far.
Credit: HBO Max

In the current age of instantaneous headlines that become outdated by the time you refresh your Twitter timeline, there’s something to be said for how the #MeToo movement has prolonged its relevance beyond the 24-hours news cycle, let alone kept its feet firmly in the national consciousness over two years after the first stories broke. But even as it has achieved some measure of justice – most notably the imprisonment of Harvey Weinstein – we may fool ourselves into thinking that any individual #MeToo story that is shared has the same contextual parameters as the one before it, and the one that will come after it, and the one that will come after that one.

It’s the binary belief that #MeToo is as simple as he said, she said that “On the Record,” a resounding and vital new documentary from longtime filmmaking partners Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, seeks to dispel—namely by focusing on Black women in the entertainment industry who have been through enough, read enough and know enough about each others’ experiences under the predatory gaze of male superiors to know that their words don’t mean nearly the same thing as they would coming from a white woman. And that’s if they decide to speak at all.

“On the Record” – which premiered at Sundance earlier this year – dares the viewer to assume that its story does feel like every other #MeToo explainer we’ve heard before, before revealing a truth over 95 minutes that deftly informs every other historic, cultural, political and personal context in its absorbing folds: It’s one thing to read New Yorker stories of those alleging they were raped by powerful men…it’s another thing entirely to look victims in the eye and hear them share their stories in their own time, taking in the emotion that fuels every word and pause.

Multiple women recount their experiences of being victimized to Dick and Ziering, but “On the Record” is largely focused on one Drew Dixon. If your knowledge about the goings-on of the music industry circa 2000 runs deeper than the average person, you may know the name. A Black Washington DC native with activist roots whose passion for music was born as she picked out the tunes for her mother’s mayoral inauguration, Dixon embarked on a meteoric rise through a blossoming hip-hop music scene, shaping a sharp ear for burgeoning talent into an offer from Russell Simmons’s Def Jam Records to work as an executive.  

“I could not have scripted it better,” Dixon says. But as attested by other floating heads in “On the Record” (almost all of them Black female lawyers, publicists, journalists and industry pros; this doc walks the walk), rising up the ranks to work alongside the entertainment world’s leading moguls, moguls like Simmons, means becoming an easier target for questionable passes, if not traumatic situations. And when it happens to Dixon – an incident, horrifyingly recounted, in which she says Simmons baited her to his hotel room before rendering her powerless – it’s enough to get her wondering if her career success is worth it. She leaves Def Jam, having ostensibly reached the pinnacle. And she keeps her experience internalized.

It’s a foreboding irony that the titles of Dick and Ziering’s most recent projects, “The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground,” describe the experiences of those interviewed for “On the Record.” It’s also a signal of the real-world issues the co-directors (sharing that title for the first time since 2002’s “Derrida”) have been so interested in examining; “War” and “Ground” delved into epidemics of rape among military ranks and on college campuses, respectively, and their work has garnered Academy Award nominations.

For “On the Record,” the co-directors boldly feign traditional genre structure – weaving Dixon’s story in and out of broader conversations about hip-hop, pop culture’s historic undercurrents of misogyny and the obstacles Black women face in speaking up – in order to make their more pointed intentions more coherent, and more emotionally effective. Dixon is not just telling her story to the camera in a well-lit room—the documentary’s real power is derived from the moments where we see her begin speaking over the phone with a New York Times reporter at the onset of #MeToo, where we observe her contemplating, with gut-wrenching rawness and intimacy, whether or not to put her story – put herself – out in the open after years of keeping it inside. The Anita Hill hearings are referenced. The more recent Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford headlines also come to mind.

As it turns out, there are shades ad infinitum to her weighing of the pros and cons, as “On the Record” – through the various Black female insights Dick and Ziering have sought out – thoroughly explains how centuries-old fights against racism and inequality butt up against mantras of female empowerment. It isn’t just Dixon’s reputation she’s putting on the line. It’s also the potential to stall forward momentum calling out societal belief systems that overwhelmingly target black men already…men like Simmons. Her potential empowerment might mean broader disempowerment.

“I didn’t want to let the culture down,” Dixon says. On the other hand, we watch her learn from the Times journalist that other women with allegations against Simmons won’t talk unless she does….and all of a sudden, “On the Record” has become a story about the immense burden that a lone (but not alone) woman can carry after a man targeted her for his sexual pleasure. And watching Dixon, who we’ve already seen recount the early days of her career with inspiring enthusiasm, whispering in hushed tones and later broken down by the impossibility of not knowing what the right decision is makes for evocative, undeniable testimony.

Credit: HBO Max

Dick and Ziering’s triumph – “On the Record” is a surefire contender for best documentary of the year – is the confident assurance with which they allow the story to tell itself, and the intelligent editing of Sara Newens also deserves praise. One of the most startling sequences in the documentary comes when what must be the most terrifying story from a survivor, Sil Lai Abrams (pay attention to the text explaining what she does, and what she used to do), is followed by a montage of the success Simmons went on to have anyway, complete with podcast introductions, healthy living book deals and roaring crowds. It’s chill-inducing, and doesn’t neglect Abrams’s words so much as accentuate the quiet fury behind them. You might feel that fury too, and later the momentary catharsis that comes when Abrams and Dixon embolden each other.

Seeing Dixon go from saying “I don’t have a game plan—zero” to saying “I want to be a warrior” as if confirming it to herself for the very first time confirms “On the Record” as a sort of therapy for her, even as she grapples with inevitable consequences that Dick and Ziering tastefully provide just a glimpse of. Elsewhere, viewers might wish the movie expanded on some of its narrative tangents, including how different media respond to the allegations multiple people have brought against Simmons (who, as the movie explains, has yet to be charged despite a flurry of allegations).

But this remains – rightly so – Dixon’s story, and the story of those like her don’t know what the next day will turn out like no matter what they choose to do, which stories they choose to tell. By movie’s end, it’s impossible not to want to wish her all the success she missed after initially leaving the business, but there’s also the understanding that there’s no getting all the years back. You get the sense Dixon has made peace with that compromise, with owning her story. In the process, “On the Record” transcends being another familiar #MeToo account to become an examination about how those stories are told, how they begin long before the byline of a 1,500-word expose and never neatly end at the clever kicker.

"On the Record" is not rated. It's available to stream now on HBO Max. 

Starring: Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Tarana Burke, Jenny Lumet

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering


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