On the Record: Cross-Fade, by David Bax
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have already taken on the cultures of sexual assault and harassment that exist in multiple American institutions, first tackling the military in 2012’s The Invisible War and then higher learning in 2015’s The Hunting Ground. Ziering was a producer on those but comes aboard as co-director (the first time she’s done so since 2002’s Derrida) in the newest exposé, On the Record, premiering on HBO Max. At first glance, the latest documentary is a look at another paragon of this nation’s society, the world of hip-hop, one of the original American art forms. But On the Record is something of a Trojan horse; its look at rape and other forms of assault in this subculture–and on former Def Jam Recordings head Russell Simmons in particular–is actually an examination of the thorny and painful realities of being a black woman victimized by a black man.
It’s shameful to admit but, if you’d asked me before I watched On the Record to list the famous men accused of rape and other forms of sexual misconduct in the last few months of 2017, I may have forgotten to include Simmons. Maybe that’s a little bit because, as an offscreen talent, he’s not as much a public-facing figure as Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. or Matt Lauer. But it’s more likely because a black man whose victims were black women sadly garners less attention than others; Refinery29’s timeline of #MeToo, published late last year, makes no mention of Simmons at all.
On the Record seeks to reclaim the world’s attention and respect for Simmons’ victims. Most the narrative focuses on former Def Jam exec Drew Dixon but other accusers like Jenny Lumet and Sil Lai Abrams are also heard from as well. Not only do they tell similar stories of what they endured at Simmons’ hands but they also have the same experience of, as the movie puts it, being victimized twice. The act of coming forward publicly is another trauma, exacerbated by the fact that the world now associates them with the disgusting details they’re recounting while Simmons gets to assume a more relatable state of shock and dismay. Despite this, Dixon and the other woman fight to be seen not as victims but as “warriors.”
But, as On the Record heartbreakingly relays, doing so is especially difficult for black women accusing a black man. For centuries in this country, black men have already been vilified, including specifically as sexual predators. And our justice system singles out and destroys the lives of black men at an egregious rate. So, as we hear from multiple women interviewed by Dick and Ziering, these women have to contend with feeling–unfair though it may be–as if they’ve betrayed their community by sticking up for themselves.
Dick has been one of the country’s preeminent documentarians since at least 1997’s Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Though his style has become more and more formulaic, his talent for transmitting information and stirring passion on important topics has grown. So has the pedigree of his collaborators; On the Record features a score by Terence Blanchard and a previously unreleased song by Lauryn Hill.
Hill and Dixon go way back, just one of many testaments herein to Dixon’s exceptional ear for music and skill at developing talent. Simmons undeniably has similar skills but On the Record recognizes and reminds us that the true loss we’re made aware of by #MeToo isn’t the careers of famous men cut short by accusations, it’s the careers and contributions of the many, many women whose names we may never know.