The documentary “ On the Record ” spends quite a bit of time introducing former music executive Drew Dixon before Russell Simmons and rape are mentioned. She talks about her youth, her politician mother, living down the street from Biggie, her love of hip-hop, her dream of working in music and what it meant when she got a call from Def Jam Recordings. That’s all before she even hints that something inappropriate might have transpired in her time there. And it’s even longer before you hear her account of what she says happened the night Simmons allegedly raped her.
At first it seems like Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s film is burying the lede a little. But it ends up being a powerful storytelling choice. It says to the viewer that their film is about more than just the so-called court transcript of what she ( and other women ) say happened with Simmons, which he has denied. It’s about their ambitions, the music industry and why black women in particular feel an extra burden when faced with whether or not to tell their stories.
The film actually starts with a number of voices, including #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, talking about why black women felt excluded from the movement. It’s important context to help understand why Dixon didn’t want to read the articles about Harvey Weinstein and others.
“I felt like, as a black woman, I don’t know if this applies,” she said. That was until the name of her alleged assailant started appearing in articles about film director and producer Brett Ratner and the things she’d been burying for all those years became undeniable. It's then that she chooses to start having conversations with reporters from The New York Times, which the film chronicles in real time.
Dixon is an incredible entryway into this world: Accomplished, insightful and instantly empathetic. She didn’t just have a front row seat to a transformative moment in hip-hop music. As the head of A&R, she was helping to shape it. She’d make a compelling subject for a documentary without the assault allegation. That it and a subsequent incident derailed her ambition, her self-worth and her love of music, makes it a tragedy.
“I wanted Russell to be a hero too,” she says. “For 20 years I took it for the team. I didn’t want to let the culture down."
“On the Record” attempts to look at the environment that Dixon was operating in from the culture of the music industry and its long history of misogyny as well as the specific misogyny of hip-hop and why women like her looked the other way when it came to lyrics they felt were demeaning. It also touches on two instances where black women have been criticized for coming forward with their stories: Anita Hill and Desiree Washington.
It’s both a compliment and a criticism to say that “On the Record” left me wanting much more. It’s extremely engaging, thanks to Dixon and the array of other voices they’ve found to help drive the story — academics, journalists, former Def Jam colleagues — but doesn’t go nearly far enough. The very subject of women and hip-hop could easily be a 10-part series. Then add in the history of black women and sexual assault and the feeling that they must protect black men? It’s another 10. Why does the film mention accusations against Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson but not Bill Cosby? And why does it not address Oprah Winfrey’s last-minute exit of the film prior to its Sundance Film Festival premiere or any of her questions?
“On the Record” is still a moving and necessary film, though. And at the very least, it gets the conversation started.
“On the Record,” an HBO Max release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. The documentary contains descriptions of sexual assault. Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press