After removing her name from an upcoming Russell Simmons documentary, On The Record, which looks at multiple sexual misconduct allegations against the music mogul, Oprah Winfrey is speaking out about the pressure Simmons put on her to leave the doc, which is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite his campaign to force her out of the project though, Winfrey says she left it due to her own concerns with the content. Simmons, for his part, has denied all allegations against him. Still, Simmons’ survivors worry that Winfrey’s decision is a sign that the intimidation worked.
Winfrey confirmed to The New York Times on January 17 that Simmons and his supporters attempted to strong-arm her into backing out of her role producing the documentary, which is directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said. Simmons and his supporters also reportedly tried to intimidate his accusers on social media, according to The New York Times. “I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film,” Winfrey said. “I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.”
The experience of reporting sexual assault and harassment as a Black woman is different than if you are a white woman, based on the statistics. Black women experience “forcible rape” at a prevalence that is 50% higher than white women and Latinas, according to a 2007 study from the Medical University of North Carolina. However, for every Black woman who reports sexual assault, 15 do not due to reasons such as “racial loyalty, personal experiences of racism and oppression, a perception that racism is more threatening to the cultural group’s well-being than sexism, and prior negative experiences with the legal system,” according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.
While Winfrey has expressed full support for the women who have publicly accused Simmons of sexual harassment or assault, including Drew Dixon, a Def Jam executive who accused Simmons of forcibly raping her in his New York City apartment in 1995, she did have concerns with the film. This included inconsistencies in Dixon’s story that the documentary doesn’t address. (The filmmakers told The New York Times “they have voluminous research files corroborating all the women’s accounts.”)
Winfrey reportedly sent the documentary to When They See Us director Ava DuVernay, asking her to watch it see if the directors, who are white, “captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women,” according to The New York Times.
DuVernay reportedly gave a “harsh critique” of the doc, which ultimately influenced Winfrey’s decision to leave the project. “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,” DuVernay told The New York Times. “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.”
Many, like Oprah, have shown support for Simmons’ accusers — including the women’s organization UltraViolet. “The upcoming documentary about Russell Simmons’ long pattern of abusing women is a critical platform for these courageous women to tell their stories and it deserves to be distributed,” Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, stated. “Anyone or anything that seeks to disrupt or prevent the film’s distribution is doing a massive disservice to survivors of sexual abuse, and justice in America.”
Time’s Up also released a statement of support on Twitter: “The Russell Simmons #silencebreakers are courageous. They are credible. And their experiences are in line with how countless survivors experience sexual trauma.”
In a statement from Simmons’ survivors, also known as the Silence Breakers, they said they would not stay quiet. “Russell Simmons and his enablers cannot intimidate us, bully us or ignore us,” their January 13 statement read. “Unyielding as a force, united in our resolve, we are black women standing with survivors of all colors and we will not be silenced.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).