At Sundance, Russell Simmons Accusers Respond to Doc Controversy: ‘This Is Where Allies Matter’

After premiering their latest documentary, “On the Record,” to no less than three standing ovations (one before its screening, two after), documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering took to the Sundance stage on Saturday evening to discuss their deep dive look at sexual assault accusations leveled against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The lead up to the film’s premiere has been especially fraught, as Oprah Winfrey pulled her name as executive producer from the project just days before its scheduled premiere, taking its Apple TV+ distribution deal with it.

While an official statement from Winfrey and additional comments from the media mogul expressed her doubts over Dick and Ziering’s presentation of the various claims against Simmons, she has yet to provide more substance to her claims. At Sundance, however, Dick and Ziering were greeted with tremendous applause during a pre-screening introduction to the film, during which Ziering thanked Sundance for showing the film.

“We wanted to thank the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival for their amazing support and for standing strong and for never blinking. These are difficult times and it’s important to stand up for truth and justice,” a visibly moved Ziering told the crowd. “We wanted to thank you all for being here and bearing witness to some of the most extraordinary people we have been privileged of working with over the last few years.”

The film is primarily centered around the accusations leveled by former Def Jam A&R executive Drew Dixon against Simmons in a 2017 New York Times article, which included similar claims of sexual assault by two other women. Following the Sundance screening, Kirby, Ziering, Dixon, and a variety of other subjects in the film took the stage for an emotional Q&A. (As of this writing, the claims against Simmons number 20 over a three-decade period.)

While Winfrey’s name was never explicitly mentioned, a member of the audience did ask about rumors she’d heard about the film before seeing it about the “pushback against this film” and how “some of that pushback” might have to do with the fact that both Ziering and Dick are white, while the majority of Simmons’ alleged victims, including Dixon, are black.

“A lot of this is about power and ecosystems of power, and all of us have kept our stories to ourselves for decades, and there are people within that ecosystem who knew our story,” Dixon said. “Some of those people are filmmakers. It’s an entertainment industry story after all, right? But nobody told our story, because the people who knew our story were subject to the same ecosystem.”

She continued, “And to me, this is where allies matter. Allies who are not subject to that same dynamic. They have traction that they can use to pull you forward, centering you with deference, which they did, to tell your story, because they’re not subject to the incoming [questions] that even powerful black people are subject to.”

Fellow subject and Simmons accuser Sil Lai Abrams added, “There are people, like Drew said, in positions of power within the ecosystem who have turned away from me. I can’t speak for Sheri [Sher], Jenny [Lumet], Alexia [Norton Jones], Drew, anyone else that was also mentioned in the film or any black woman who has tried to come forward to those in her community and to express the pain and the trauma of what she’s been through.”

Ziering noted, “I just want to stress that this really was a collaborative effort from day one, with all the people involved, and any representation that that wasn’t the case is not an accurate representation of this narrative. … We are super proud to be here and grateful to everyone who gave us the power and ability to tell this story.”

”On the Record” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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