On the Record

 

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A film with a title which, because it is set in the music industry, carries a double meaning.

 
On the Record   

Drew Dixon

 

The opening rallying cry at the start of On the Record is splendidly effective. It comes from women who, being victims of sexual abuse, make it clear just how important it is for people like themselves to speak out. Now that the #MeToo movement is so well established this might sound like familiar ground, but the pre-credit sequence has a power all its own due to the fact that all of those seen here are women of colour. What follows often speaks to the experience of all victims of sexual abuse, but it is stressed from the start that the majority of victims who come forward are white and in many cases come from a comfortable background that helps to cushion them when they say what happened to them.

 

The filmmakers here are Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering who have worked together before, most notably in a highly effective documentary about sexual assaults in the US military (2012's The Invisible War). The strong start to On the Record led me to hope for something equally arresting about the plight of black women who have been sexually abused but have initially felt unable to speak up for fear of not being believed and of being subjected to humiliation in court by defence lawyers. Racism among whites can encourage the wish to depict all black women as sluts and consequently black women who complain and go to law are all the more at risk over what may be asserted about them in court. Furthermore, if they are accusing a black man of being a rapist, they could readily find themselves disproved of by those who choose to put racial solidarity first even in these circumstances.

 

Not knowing in advance what to expect from On the Record, I thought it probable that it would follow up that rousing start with a series of tales from and about victims and thus become a film of cumulative power. First up is Drew Dixon who in the 1990s had been an A & R executive at Def Jam Recordings in New York, a concern then ran by the man who became known as the Godfather of hip-hop, Russell Simmons. Drew's story of how she was raped by Simmons (a claim that he denies) only became public much later when she was at last spurred on to speak out by hearing about denials by him and by others relating to comparable cases. No less did this encourage her to make a similar claim against LA Reid of Arista Records relating to a later period in her life, again met by denial.

 

This is powerful stuff, but the way in which it is told in On the Record takes so much time early on in describing Drew's career in the music industry that it starts to feel like a biopic about her rather than the more powerful and wider-ranging piece that the opening had suggested. Admittedly Drew's story is not the only one told here, but the film only adds to it by eventually bringing in other women making comparable claims against Simmons. In time at least twenty accusers would come forward all to be met by denials, but On the Record features two in particular alongside Drew Dixon, namely Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher. Their stories are equally disturbing but so close to that of Drew that the film for all its admirable intentions comes to seem rather repetitive and over-extended. This film will rightly be welcomed but The Invisible War, so cogent and reasoned and more varied within its chosen area, offered a far better treatment of its subject. One just wishes that in handling equally important issues here the filmmakers had created a work of the same quality.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Jenny Lumet, Tarana Burke, Kimberle Crenshaw, Kierna Mayo, Joan Morgan, Shanita Hubbard, Michelle Wallace, Cyndy Small.

 

Dir Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, Pro Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, Amy Herdy and Jamie Rogers, Screenplay Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Sara Newens, Ph Ava Berkofsky and Thaddeus Wadleigh, Ed Sara Newens, Music Terence Blanchard.

 

Artemis Rising Productions/Chain Camera Pictures/Impact Partners/Jane Doe Films-Dogwoof.
95 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 26 June 2020. Available on VOD. Cert. 15.