by Valerie Morales
The unnamed documentary that charts sexual abuses in the recording industry, the one that targeted Russell Simmons as a rapist, the one that had Oprah Winfrey’s approval and producer credit, the one that was going to premiere at Sundance at the end of this month, that film has been seismically wounded but not gutted. In a carefully worded statement Oprah Winfrey has distanced herself from the film in a quiet revolt. It will no longer be available on AppleTV+. But it will appear as scheduled at Sundance.
“I have great respect for their mission but given the filmmakers desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it’s best to step aside.” Oprah continued “in my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision.”
Winfrey clarified her exit: it doesn’t change her support for the women who levied accusations against Russell Simmons. Her support is a gift to the film and its properties of equity and truth. Believe the women on the screen, regardless of Russell Simmons exhortations. That’s something. Because if Oprah believes the women are telling the truth, she also believes Simmons is a predator. He used his power to abuse women. The problem though is that when Oprah Winfrey was automatically attached to the project it bestowed credibility. Her exit weighs the film with a joyless freight.
The filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering replied “revealing hard truths is never easy and the women in our documentary are all showing extraordinary strength and courage by raising their voices to address sexual abuse in the music industry. While we are disappointed that Oprah Winfrey is no longer an executive producer on the project, we are gratified that Winfrey has unequivocally said she believes and supports the survivors.”
Women supporting women is a shadowy theme of #MeToo because too often women enable abusive men because of convenience or because they want to avoid retraumatization. They are complicit in assault in one breath while whining about it in another. Though Oprah has long given her support to victims, she was targeted when Russell Simmons publicly begged her in a fractious way to back out the project. Regardless of the reason, an unapologetic Simmons won the Oprah sweepstakes.
This film is one in which Oprah had the most to lose and her support created a lot of condemnation. Being accused of harming black men was relitigating an old argument about black women and abusive black men. Transactionally, Oprah had to get it right or forever be stained.
If former Def Jam executive Drew Dixon and others in the documentary presented facts that were later found to be impeachable, it is Oprah and not Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering who would be chastised as fraudulent. As not interested in details. Her integrity would be questioned. As in why did you give the green light to this project? What was the rush? Are the critics right, there is another agenda here?
The easiest thing to do is to back out of it, the hard thing is to continue her support, but here’s the thing. Backing out of it doesn’t change the width and length, doesn’t keep the Sundance premiere from happening, it doesn’t not tell Drew Dixon’s story.
You can’t unring the bell. The attention of the film, thanks to Russell Simmons, and now Oprah’s exit, is Pavlovian. What doesn’t Russell Simmons want us to know? And what was Oprah so uncomfortable with that she had to pull out?
Oprah was stung last year when the Michael Jackson doc revealed some inconsistencies. The story the accusers told in a sensational manner on HBO had holes. That she publicly supported Wade Robson and James Safechuck with an after the show kumbaya was a backlash just waiting to happen. Curiously, Oprah gave Wade Robson and James Safechuck legitimacy as sexual assault victims and she gave them currency to fame.
I, for one, tuned in to her special expecting….I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t a halo atop the heads of Robson and Safechuck. I’m not of the opinion that its impossible for Jackson to be a rapist but I need to mine all the details before I conclude the worst about him. In that vein, I felt Oprah did a lot of us who were reeling after the doc a disservice. She took a side and was evangelizing on behalf of Safechuck and Robson, almost out of sentimentality for those who will never have their rapists revealed.
After the inconsistencies were revealed in Leaving Neverland, and despite collective sneering, Oprah didn’t walk back her support and I didn’t expect her to. She nurtures victims in the very bold way she was never nurtured as a child and the power in that, in being able to give what you never got is upward mobility.
Had Oprah issued any regret about her unwavering support of Robson and Safechuck, she would have devalued the audience who participated in the aftershow, real victims of sexual assault who have spent years trying to recover from their trauma.
So history is guiding her. Letting the Russell Simmons doc stand on its own without her support is like letting a child go off by themselves in a foreign and strange land. Their life isn’t going to be easier. And their might be trouble. It’s no longer Oprah Winfrey’s problem however.
Not so with Russell Simmons. Though dodging the Oprah bullet, he can’t really exhale. Oprah still believes those who are accusing him of atrocities. His joy at her exit is absurd and misses the point. The movie still exists in the culture and in real time. Women are saying he is a predator. The clock is ticking until Sundance. The filmmakers will be looking for distributors and will work the interview circuit. Simmons will still have to explain his behavior, impeach his accuser(s), and then fall on his knees and hope he is believable, that he can dig his way out of a public abyss. That’s a tough hurdle and a lot of mess. We remember accusations. Not so much the tiny fine print that absolves the accused if indeed they deserve to be absolved.