25/09/2020

Winfrey faced a difficult choice about whether to continue supporting a documentary about Russell Simmons.

One of the men accused as part of #MeToo is Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings. Allegations against Simmons are detailed in the documentary On the Record, which debuted last weekend during the Sundance Film Festival. The film focuses on Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam executive who accused Simmons of assaulting her in the mid-1990s. She is one of more than a dozen women who have gone public with allegations against Simmons.
In On the Record, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering hoped to bring these allegations to a wider audience. The pair have previously worked together on documentaries about sexual assault, including The Hunting Ground, which looks at sexual assault on college campuses, and The Invisible War, which explores rape in the U.S. military. And on this project, they had a major supporter: Oprah Winfrey.
Last month, Winfrey announced that she would be signing on as an executive producer of the documentary and that as part of her multiyear partnership with Apple TV+ to create new content, On the Record would be available for streaming online. That would have made it much more accessible than if the directors secured only a limited run in theaters, just as airing on Lifetime meant that Surviving R. Kelly reached a huge audience. But even more important than the logistics of distribution, Winfreys authority as a sexual assault survivor and major cultural gatekeeper could have helped ensure that the voices of Simmonss accusers were elevated, and that they would be protected and respected.
It hasnt turned out that way.
Soon after the announcement, Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent, accused Winfrey of only going after black men. According to Jacksons logic, since Winfrey didnt financially support documentaries focused on Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein, she couldnt possibly throw her support behind a project that highlights allegations against Simmons without betraying her community.
And Simmons himself has made numerous overtures to Winfrey. Dearest OPRAH, you have been a shining light to my family and my community, he wrote in an open letter to her. This is why its so troubling that you choose me to single out in your recent documentry [sic].
This effort to persuade Winfrey to close ranks on behalf of a powerful male artist resembles the thinking that allows for sexual predators, both inside and outside the black community, to roam free.
For years, journalist Jim DeRogatis covered reports that singer R. Kelly was targeting young black Chicago women for sexual abuse, but its only now that Kelly faces multiple state and federal charges in Chicago and New York. And while Weinstein, who went on trial on rape charges in New York this month, was notorious for his violent temper in Hollywood for decades before women came forward to say that he had raped them, his behavior was excused as a sign of artistic passion. If the public and investigators had listened to these women early on and refused to believe that genius excused bad behavior, men like these probably wouldve faced justice sooner.
And whatever her reasoning, Winfrey gave credence to Jackson and Simmonss appeals when she announced that she was no longer backing On the Record. Apple TV+ will no longer stream the documentary. Citing differences in creative vision, Winfrey said in an interview last week that this is not a victory for Russell. Meanwhile, the filmmakers, having lost a powerful platform, are looking for distributors.
Winfrey may have faced a genuinely difficult decision: either put her name on a product she had come to doubt, or appear to appease those who accused her of betraying her race.
But an honest discussion of the alleged wrongdoing of powerful black men does not hurt the black community. When Weinstein was accused of sexual assault, there was no discussion of how he was reflecting poorly on white men. Why should Simmons be treated any differently? The documentary, in fact, discusses the pushback that many black women face when accusing successful black men of wrongdoing. Dixon said, I didnt want to let the culture down.
Dixon didnt, and neither did the other accusers. But in withdrawing her cultural power at the very moment when these womens voices need to be uplifted, Oprah Winfrey certainly let them down.
Read more:
The Posts View: Its long past time for questions about R. Kelly to be answered and reckoned with
Danielle McGuire: Black women led the charge against R. Kelly. Theyre part of a long tradition.
Colbert I. King: For black women, #MeToo came centuries too late
Karen Tumulty: Harvey Weinsteins trial shows us that small voices can make mighty noise
Eugene Robinson: Dont underestimate the possibility of Oprah 2020