Last Friday, Oprah Winfrey announced that she would be pulling out as executive producer of the upcoming Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary On the Rercord, which dives into accusations of sexual assault against music executive Russell Simmons, with a particular focus on his ex-Def Jam employee Drew Dixon. The news that Winfrey would remove herself as executive producer and pull the yet-to-be-named documentary from its upcoming Apple TV+ release came two weeks before the film’s scheduled premiere at Sundance, on January 25. In a statement, Winfrey reaffirmed that she believes and supports the women in the film, but also believed that “there is more work to be done” before its release, and that “the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision.” Now, she’s revealed to the New York Times that she received persistent pressure, via private calls and messages as well as public videos and posts, from Russell Simmons to withdraw from the film.
After the documentary was announced as part of the Sundance lineup in December, Russell Simmons “reached out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Oprah told the Times. After multiple “frightened” calls and text messages, Simmons began posting on social media, attempting to discredit his accusers and Winfrey’s involvement in the project. High-profile artists including 50 Cent accused Winfrey of “only going after” African-American men. Simmons also used what one accuser called “very dark tactics” to discredit more than a dozen women who have accused him of rape and assault, challenging their credibility and casting judgment on their mental health in an online video. Dixon said, “He is trying to muzzle our voices again.”
Later that December, Winfrey shared a cut of the film with director Ava DuVernay so that she could watch it “with an eye toward how well the two filmmakers, who are white, captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women,” and that she gave it a “harsh critique.” DuVernay clarified to the Times the difficult position that this created for Winfrey:
“She’s got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with,” Ms. DuVernay said. “So if she walks away from the film she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
Winfrey did not feel that the filmmakers’ changes to the film rectified her and DuVernay’s issues, which led to Winfrey pulling out as a producer. Time’s Up continues to support the women, but Dixon said to the Times, “I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime … I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.” Dixon, along with Dick and Ziering, still stand by the film. On the Record will premiere at Sundance on January 25.