[Note: This article contains language discussing sexual assault.]
Last week, the fate of a documentary centered on sexual assault accusations against media mogul Russell Simmons was suddenly called into question, when the project’s most high-profile backer, Oprah Winfrey, not only removed herself from her role as an executive producer on the project, but also dislodged it from her ongoing content deal with Apple. Untitled at present, the documentary is the work of filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, whose past explorations of individual and institutional instances of sexual assault include 2015's harrowing The Invisible War. This latest film—still scheduled to debut at Sundance, later this month—focused solely on accusations of assault against Simmons, most prominently from former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon, who says Simmons raped her in 1995.
The New York Times has a piece examining the reasons behind Winfrey’s decision to pull her support from the film today; while the prominent producer and former talk show host has been adamant in her assertion that her problems were with the movie itself—stating that she thought the film was being rushed to completion ahead of its Sundance debut—and not the accusations, she also noted that Simmons attempted to “pressure” her to back away from the project. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said, adding that, “I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film. I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.”
Nevertheless, Winfrey did, indeed, remove herself from the project, reportedly citing concerns with its unwillingness to grapple with certain “inconsistencies” in Dixon’s account. She also stated that while she still believes Dixon, she was unhappy with certain aspects of how Dick and Ziering were handling the material. (Among other things, she asked her friend, director Ava DuVernay, to view the film to see whether she thought its treatment of hip-hop culture was accurate and fair.) The filmmakers, for their part, have stated that they have numerous documents backing up the film’s take on events. The messaging in the Times piece is blatantly clear, though: Despite reports that numerous unnamed people affiliated with Simmons tried to talk her into backing out of the project, nobody pressures Oprah but Oprah, and that the decision to leave the film was made entirely on her own judgment
None of which is apparently of much comfort to Drew Dixon, who was also quoted in the piece. “I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime,” Dixon told The Times. “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”
Simmons’ camp denies both the allegations of the assault, as well as implications that he attempted to pressure Winfrey—although they do admit that he called her and asked her to rethink her involvement in the film.