Will You Consider These Black Ladies?

Courtesy of HBO Max

Drew Dixon in On the Document.

Drew Dixon, as soon as a promising A&R govt at Def Jam and Arista Information, might have been a family identify by now. An early champion of artists like The Infamous B.I.G., John Legend, and Kanye West, she had at all times boasted a ardour for hip-hop and a formidable ear for expertise. Why she by no means turned a full-fledged business legend is revealed in On the Document, a brand new HBO Max documentary out now that follows Dixon and different ladies who declare that hip-hop legend and enterprise mogul Russell Simmons sexually assaulted them. Up to now, a minimum of 20 ladies have accused Simmons of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Simmons has vehemently denied all allegations. Simmons’ publicist didn’t reply to a request for remark from BuzzFeed Information in time for publication.

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaking duo Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible Conflict, The Looking Floor), the movie has been mired in controversy from the beginning. Oprah Winfrey signed onto the undertaking in December 2019, a lot to the criticism of Simmons and his supporters (together with rapper 50 Cent, who mentioned he “doesn’t perceive why Oprah goes after black males”). However on January 10, Winfrey withdrew as co-executive producer of the undertaking forward of its Sundance premiere, citing inventive variations and issues about “inconsistencies within the tales.” The movie’s distribution cope with Apple TV+ — which has a multiyear, content material partnership with Winfrey — was additionally pulled, leaving the movie in limbo, to doubtlessly by no means be seen by a wider viewers. Nonetheless, in an look on CBS This Morning on January 21, Winfrey dismissed the concept that her backing off was an exoneration for Simmons, saying, “I stand with the ladies. I help the ladies. And I do hope individuals will see the movie… Make your individual selections about it.”

Jerritt Clark / Getty Photographs

Audiences at Sundance did have their very own takeaways, made clear with a number of standing ovations. A Selection overview mentioned the movie “plunges deeper than maybe any #MeToo narrative we’ve seen” whereas Leisure Weekly referred to as it “brutal, heartbreaking, and — with or with out Oprah’s co-sign — totally obligatory.” The documentary’s destiny was unclear all through the pageant’s period, however on February 3, WarnerMedia’s new streaming platform HBO Max introduced it had acquired the movie.

Given the subject material, to not point out the novelty of HBO Max, it’s arduous to foretell definitively whether or not On the Document will make the waves the movies’ individuals are hoping for. A large launch through streaming could very effectively function a litmus take a look at for whether or not the #MeToo motion (in its present, common state) really serves ladies of coloration. In the meantime, some individuals have been skeptical about whether or not two white filmmakers can validly painting the story of alleged black sexual assault survivors (or whether or not it’s their enterprise to aim it within the first place). The drama across the documentary’s launch, in addition to the controversy over the movie’s contents, isn’t shocking; collectively they spotlight the complicated boundaries that black ladies face in preventing sexual violence inside their group and within the public eye — and what, within the midst of that combat, has been misplaced.

Omar Mullick

A nonetheless from On the Document.

Early within the movie, Dixon walks the streets of now-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, stomping grounds she shared with the late Christopher Wallace (rapper Infamous B.I.G.). “I at all times surprise what would’ve occurred if Biggie had lived,” she says. “I really feel like Biggie had my again.”

It’s a second I identified over the telephone to Dixon after we spoke earlier this month, because of the truth that, whereas Biggie — like Simmons — was an immense, influential, and beloved expertise, he was additionally allegedly violent along with his former romantic associate and fellow rapper Lil’ Kim. She responded thoughtfully: “The distinction between my expertise with [Biggie] as a buddy and the expertise that different individuals had with him when it comes to home violence makes the purpose that this is not binary. Folks have completely different features of their character. And in Russell’s case, there are various people who have had interactions with him that I am positive are utterly pleasant, productive, benign, innocent, and so they by no means noticed the aspect of him that I noticed that night time.”

In On the Document in addition to her New York Occasions story, Dixon discusses how she had grown accustomed to disregarding Simmons’ advances whereas working at Def Jam Information. She alleges he had verbally come on to her, tried to kiss her, and ultimately started exposing his penis to her in non-public — all acts for which he’d apologize following every incident. “I assumed that he was like this tragic, ADD pet canine that I simply needed to hold retraining,” says Dixon within the movie. On the time, she was solely targeted on proving herself professionally, curating a platinum-selling soundtrack and serving to to supply a Grammy-winning hit. And her choice to brush off Simmons’ conduct appeared to be par for course within the burgeoning world of hip-hop on the time. “When issues went awry, if issues have been uncomfortable, in the event that they have been misogynist, in the event that they have been sexist, you didn’t get plenty of sympathy for that,” explains hip-hop feminist and writer Joan Morgan within the documentary. “That was thought-about the value of admission.”

“There are lots of people who have had interactions with him that I am positive are utterly pleasant, productive, benign, innocent, and so they by no means noticed the aspect of him that I noticed that night time.”

However one late night time in 1995, in keeping with Dixon, Simmons’ come-ons turned rather more sinister. As Dixon was heading house, Simmons inspired her to attend for a automobile again at his residence, so she might seize a promising demo he had ready there. A fervent hip-hop lover, the potential to find new music was “like catnip” for Dixon. However there was no precise demo; as an alternative, Simmons allegedly “violently tackled and raped” her, regardless of her preventing and saying no. Per week later, the 24-year-old submitted a handwritten letter of resignation from her dream job. For years, Dixon instructed me, she thought she was “the one individual he’d tricked into being alone with him after which raped.”

Creator, activist, and former mannequin Sil Lai Abrams had additionally labored at Def Jam Information, however a couple of years earlier as an govt assistant, in 1992. She and Simmons even casually dated, in keeping with Abrams. However in 1994, whereas Abrams was in a dedicated relationship with one other man (and had instructed Simmons as a lot), Simmons allegedly raped her when she was too drunk to consent. In a 2018 Hollywood Reporter story on Abrams’ claims, Simmons denied he had raped her and claims to have “handed a lie detector take a look at answering ‘No’ to questions on whether or not he had assaulted, raped or compelled anybody to have intercourse, together with Ms. Abrams.” Abrams says within the documentary that she left that night time traumatized and, the following day, took 18 prescription sleeping capsules earlier than kissing her 3-year-old son goodbye. She was then rushed to the ER.

HBO Max / By way of screenshot, Ron Galella, Ltd. / Getty Photographs

Drew Dixon, left, and Russell Simmons within the ’90s.

For a lot of, the rise of the #MeToo motion in 2017 felt like a watershed second. However simply over a decade earlier than it turned a Hollywood-friendly hashtag, it was based by Tarana Burke, a black activist and sexual assault survivor interviewed in On the Document. And in keeping with Anita Hill, that empowering, cultural shift we noticed three years in the past might have occurred even earlier had she been taken extra severely in 1991, when testifying about alleged sexual harassment from Clarence Thomas. Dealing with an all-white-male panel led by Joe Biden, Hill was put by means of the wringer, her ethical character unfairly questioned in makes an attempt to discredit her. And so she turned a cautionary story.

“I bear in mind my senior 12 months at Stanford, watching the Anita Hill hearings. I used to be like, Nicely, that didn’t go very effectively for her. He’s within the Supreme Courtroom now. I’m by no means going to try this,” says Dixon within the documentary. “And I bear in mind Desiree Washington, who was the pageant winner who was raped by Mike Tyson. And the black group was not variety to her.”

Sufferer-blaming stays a pervasive response to tales of sexual assault survivors, however the points going through black ladies — who’ve been deemed much less harmless, extra promiscuous, and “unrapeable” — are thornier. A lot of Weinstein’s alleged victims have been privileged, enticing white ladies and nonetheless topic to skepticism. “If this docile and candy and harmless and pure [white woman] can nonetheless get questioned and never believed and discounted, what do you assume is occurring to black ladies in America after we come ahead with tales about sexual violence?” asks author Shanita Hubbard within the movie.

Black ladies usually tend to be raped than different ladies general, but much less prone to report and fewer prone to be believed. 

Certainly, black ladies usually tend to be raped than different ladies general, but much less prone to report and fewer prone to be believed, to not point out much less prone to have their perpetrators arrested, prosecuted — and if it will get this far — convicted or punished. And whereas the stats are bleak sufficient, if perpetrators come from their group, black ladies face an added dilemma: what duties they’ve to guard their very own.

“Your duty to muffle your screams is bigger than his duty to not do it within the first place,” says authorized scholar and civil rights advocate Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw within the movie. Many black ladies don’t wish to harm these males they collectively name their brothers (and, within the case of the accused Simmons, “Uncle Rush”). This impulse towards preservation goes past a broad, familylike kinship: When the felony justice system is notoriously vicious to black males — and incarcerates them disproportionately — partaking with it appears out of the query.

Traditionally, black males have too usually been wrongly focused as being violent threats and/or rapists, regardless of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ constant discovering that white males commit nearly all of acts of sexual violence. “We’re gonna add gasoline to the fireplace, the parable of the sexually aggressive black man? I don’t wish to do this. I wished Russell to be a hero too,” Dixon says in On the Document. “For 22 years, I took it for the crew. Russell Simmons is the king of hip-hop, and I used to be happy with him for that… I didn’t wish to let the tradition down. I really like the tradition. I cherished Russell too.”

HBO Max / By way of screenshot

Sher Sher in On the Document.

If individuals appear particularly protecting of Simmons’ identify and legacy, it’s due to his foundational position in bringing hip-hop to bigger audiences by means of his label Def Jam Information; for years Russell Simmons was a vital ambassador for the style. One of many ladies featured in On the Document, Sheri Sher, was born and raised within the Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop. Raised in an 11-kid family by a struggling single mother, the 14-year-old discovered an escape from a unstable house life in hip-hop. She fondly recollects jams at 63 Park — a concrete schoolyard — amid the “hood-famous” likes of Grandmaster Flash, the L Brothers, and DJ Kool Herc. “What made me fall in love with it extra was the issues being rapped,” Sheri Sher (she goes by her stage identify) instructed me on the telephone from her Harlem house. “You have been capable of inform about what you are going by means of on the mic. And all people understood it. It was only a blissful vibe.”

“For 22 years, I took it for the crew. Russell Simmons is the king of hip-hop, and I used to be happy with him for that… I didn’t wish to let the tradition down. I really like the tradition. I cherished Russell too.”

Sheri Sher turned a founding member of the legendary Mercedes Girls, the first-ever all-women hip-hop/DJ group. For a time, Simmons was contemplating managing the ladies. In 1983, when Sheri Sher was 17, Simmons invited her to his workplace and allegedly raped her on his sofa. “He was pinning me down, and I used to be making an attempt to combat him and he had his manner,” she instructed the Los Angeles Occasions in 2017. (“These new tales vary from the patently unfaithful to frivolous and hurtful claims,” Simmons instructed the Occasions on the time. “I wish to restate categorically what I’ve mentioned beforehand: I’ve by no means been violent or abusive to any ladies in any manner at any time in my complete life.”) The teenager left crying and instructed a couple of individuals near her, however in any other case saved quiet for many years; she didn’t need it to overshadow or kill her hip-hop objectives.

Some would possibly argue that Simmons’ alleged remedy of those ladies can be endemic in hip-hop. (Although Simmons says his sexual encounters have all been consensual, even he admits to being a womanizer previously.) However that argument assumes a slender, stereotypical understanding of what hip-hop includes in comparison with what it has truly been — an expressive artwork for the missed, rooted in wrestle, delight, and resilience.

There’s a hazard in pondering that misogyny is just restricted to hip-hop. On the Document serves up tracks by the Beatles, Tom Jones, and the Rolling Stones (whose track “Some Ladies” contains the lyric “Black ladies simply wanna get fucked all night time”) to show how misogyny and sexism have been baked into common music all through fashionable historical past. Hip-hop has merely mirrored society at massive, and subsequently the white patriarchal energy buildings we’re accustomed to.

Nonetheless, hip-hop has thus far failed massively in holding its allegedly abusive males accountable — an particularly egregious failure when contemplating black ladies are sometimes those being harm. Whereas it’s undoubtedly male-dominated, black ladies have lengthy been central to its structure and progress, as each adherents and artists. And over the previous few years specifically, regardless of odds and boundaries, ladies have begun to dominate the sphere.

When 4 black ladies solo artists only in the near past broke floor on the prime of the US charts, the feat was each triumphant and overdue. And it’s value questioning — although maybe unimaginable to reply — whether or not a majority of these milestones might need occurred earlier if hip-hop have been a extra supportive, respectful, and secure atmosphere for girls. Cardi B, one other historymaker, spoke to Cosmopolitan in 2018 about harassment pre-fame: “After I was making an attempt to be a vixen, individuals have been like, ‘You wish to be on the quilt of this journal?’ Then they pull their dicks out.” (“These producers and administrators, they’re not woke, they’re scared,” she added, concerning sure males publicly voicing their help of #MeToo.)

On the Document laments the cultural contributions we’ve missed out on. Neither Dixon nor Sheri Sher misplaced their love of hip-hop or ambition inside it following their alleged assaults; they are saying they have been silent partly as a result of they wished to remain within the sport. However they dimmed themselves and their reality in doing so. Although Sheri Sher revealed a e book on the Mercedes Girls, she instructed me she referred to as it a novel as an alternative of a straight-up autobiography, as she was involved that in any other case Simmons would blackball her or overshadow the undertaking. (In one of many e book’s chapters, important character Shelly Shel is sexually assaulted by a strong businessman named Ron.)

Dixon went on to work below Clive Davis at Arista Information — a constructive expertise. However when Davis retired, L.A. Reid took over and Dixon mentioned he harassed her, treating her with hostility when she rebuffed his advances. (Reid denied this declare to the filmmakers, calling Dixon’s allegations “unfounded, not true, and symbolize an entire misrepresentation and fabrication of any info or occasions alleged therein as having occurred.”) Demoralized, Dixon ultimately stop the music business altogether to go to Harvard Enterprise Faculty. (Reid left Sony abruptly 15 years later amid sexual harassment allegations.) Abrams additionally stop style after Simmons allegedly raped her: “I didn’t wish to do something the place I’d see individuals who have been adjoining to this man.”

“When individuals get out for these sorts of causes, I believe that us, as the general public, we endure as a result of we don’t know what they may’ve produced or what they may have introduced,” says former A&R govt Miguel Mojica within the movie. Provides author and former Ebony editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo within the movie, “We lose — all of us lose — when good ladies go away.”

Courtesy of HBO Max / By way of screenshot

Sil Lai Abrams in On the Document.

On the Document does plenty of heavy lifting — and a few critics have urged that it’s maybe an excessive amount of for one movie to hold. However this side appears becoming when the movie is essentially in regards to the onerous burden positioned upon black ladies when coping with problems with sexual violence. And what the documentary does notably effectively is deal with the ladies and their journey, reasonably than centralizing Simmons.

Proper earlier than her story within the Hollywood Reporter went dwell in 2018, Abrams googled herself and screenshotted the outcomes. She wished a approach to bear in mind her digital footprint earlier than she’d be perpetually linked to the boys she’s accused of sexual assault: Simmons and the leisure host A.J. Calloway. (Calloway, whose lawyer mentioned the allegations are “patently false” in February 2019, parted methods with Warner Bros. final July after the corporate investigated a number of misconduct claims towards the previous Further host.) She mentioned the lack of her outdated identification is one thing she nonetheless mourns. “I knew that coming ahead, the entire work that I’ve achieved to determine myself as a reputable advocate and activist for survivors of gender violence would develop into secondary to the identities of the perpetrators,” Abrams instructed me.

What the documentary does notably effectively is deal with the ladies and their journey, reasonably than centralizing Simmons.

She additionally refuted the widespread declare that accusing a well-known man of sexual assault is a useful or profitable transfer. “As a matter of reality, you lose cash in consequence, and that’s definitely been the case for me,” mentioned Abrams, who says she had roughly 300 talking engagements over the course of her profession previous to coming ahead, and none since.

“What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d have a brand new relationship with this info. Basically, I needed to course of it for the primary time. It was like unmetabolized info,” says Dixon within the movie. After her story broke, the mom of two says she sought a divorce upon realizing she nonetheless needed to course of her trauma and new identification. “It was actually like urgent ‘play’ on a film that I had paused 22 years in the past, in the course of the scariest scene.”

It’s arduous to disregard how initiatives like On the Document have the potential to retraumatize and mistreat survivors; there’s the nervousness over sharing some of the harrowing moments of your life with the world, in addition to the neverending press days the place journalists and writers, like myself, repeatedly ask you to revisit these moments. (The truth that I performed these deeply private interviews whereas every girl was in quarantine — probably making the expertise much more emotionally draining and isolating — was not misplaced on me.) And it appears Hollywood continues to be navigating methods to finest inform #MeToo narratives. Surviving R. Kelly, for instance, was referred to as “deeply flawed” and “ham-handed and sensationalized,” with Vulture noting the tabloidesque docuseries was “too within the particulars of what R. Kelly did to those ladies’s our bodies to completely care about their humanity.” However whereas On the Document unpacks and examines trauma, its strategies don’t really feel exploitative; the movie focuses on reckoning and discovering paths ahead reasonably than mining shock worth or salacious particulars.

And although having white filmmakers body this matter is maybe a contentious, imperfect method — Ziering admits among the topics even had reservations about this side early on — it may additionally have been a necessity: “Numerous that is about energy, proper? And ecosystems of energy. All of us have saved our tales to ourselves for many years. And there are individuals inside that ecosystem who knew our story, and a few of these persons are filmmakers — it’s an leisure business story in spite of everything. However no person instructed our story as a result of the individuals who knew our story have been topic to the identical ecosystem,” Dixon mentioned, answering an viewers query after the Sundance premiere. “And to me, that is the place allies matter. Allies who will not be topic to that very same dynamic. They’ve traction that they will use to tug you ahead, centering you with deference — which they did — to inform the story as a result of they don’t seem to be topic to the identical incoming that even highly effective black persons are topic to. And so, to me, this is the reason the filmmakers are white, as a result of they don’t have the identical vulnerability.” In contemplating this, it’s maybe unsurprising that the primary individual to publicly accuse Simmons of sexual assault was mannequin Keri Claussen Khalighi — a white girl. (He denied Khalighi’s declare, saying no matter transpired “occurred along with her full consent and participation.”)

“It’s my hope that those that see this movie and who could also be on the fence about reporting an act of violence, of telling their story to somebody they belief, that they’re impressed to know that there’s life after.”

By offering a secure house for these ladies to share their tales, identities are clearly modified in methods painful and uncooked, however in constructive methods too. Abrams hopes that her story serves as a message to alleged perpetrators (and potential perpetrators) that what occurs in non-public can develop into public and produce penalties, regardless of whether or not or not they find yourself incarcerated. She additionally sees it as an act of service for survivors.

“Once you converse up and inform your story, it takes away the facility that perpetrators have of weaponizing your inner disgrace towards you. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of. I did nothing unsuitable so I can’t carry that burden,” mentioned Abrams. “It’s my hope that those that see this movie and who could also be on the fence about reporting an act of violence, of telling their story to somebody they belief, that they’re impressed to know that there’s life after.”

When Sheri Sher got here ahead along with her story, she likened it to being lastly healed from a virus; she felt “highly effective, fearless.” Dixon additionally felt a way of liberation. “As quickly as I instructed the world that I used to be a lady who was raped by Russell Simmons, I finished being outlined by that for myself,” she instructed me, acknowledging the irony. “So I am truly now not the lady who was raped by Russell Simmons. I am Drew Dixon residing my life.”

Time will inform whether or not Simmons faces any main penalties. However hope stays that On the Document can contribute to a wider societal shift, pushing for accountability and inspiring significant allyship. There’s a wonderful solidarity to be witnessed among the many individuals — largely black ladies — who participated within the documentary, a lot of whom took appreciable private {and professional} dangers to be featured. They’ve come collectively for the sake of supporting one another, generously sharing their lives and data with the world. And positive, possibly that’s arguably quid professional quo for a documentary, however the stakes really feel notably excessive right here. With the discharge of On the Document and its potential ensuing dialogue, it is a probability to — lastly — start to do proper by black ladies all over the place. ●

Sandi Rankaduwa is a Sri Lankan–Canadian author, comic, and filmmaker who’s written for The Believer, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed Reader, and elsewhere. She’s a recipient of the BuzzFeed Rising Writers Fellowship in addition to the Doc Accelerator Fellowship at Scorching Docs, and she or he splits her time between Brooklyn and Halifax.

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