Punish Oprah? Not On Your Best Day
by Valerie Morales
Before #MeToo was even a hint of a thing, and before women made damning allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A searing and sad elegy, The Color Purple was the story of Celie and Mister, abused girl and oppressor, both black in the 1920’s. Up until then, black families trafficking in abuse was a quotidian secret.
The novel authored by Alice Walker had a lot to say about how we hide sexual violence in the margins. To a large group of black women, the exegesis was spot on. For a large group of black men, their disgust was histrionic.
A lot of time has passed since The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize; it matters only a fraction, how slow the years have moved in relation to sexual abuse normalcy. The novel’s relevance endures. Sexual violence is still messy and toxic with an added #MeToo layer.
Oprah Winfrey starred in the film version of the Color Purple. Her character was feisty and verbally impulsive, a gutsy woman unwilling to normalize abuse. It was an aspirational performance, a reminder to draw a line in the sand and speak up when wronged.
Long after she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sofia, Oprah, the talk show host, went to a prison and sat in a room with a bunch of convicted rapists. It was a tremulous experience for any abuse survivor. Nevertheless, she forged ahead. She said to them unflinchingly “when you commit rape you change who that person is going to be forevermore. Do you understand that?” The group of men sitting semi-circle had the benefit of intervention. Their faces illustrated their shame, if not their remorse, though a few communicated sorrow.
Culturally, a lot has not changed since Oprah’s prison moment, nor since Alice Walker first wrote about Celie and Mister and won the Prize. Society, however, is much more aggressive about sexual assault allegations. It’s click bait for many, entertainment trafficking in the worst version of ourselves. But the lingering residue of The Color Purple, and the Oprah Winfrey Show, in a nutshell, is about privilege. Who gets to tell the truth about whom?
I knew a girl who was raped by her father after she walked in on him having sex with someone who was not her mother. Angry, he sabotaged her before she could run away, grabbing her from behind, lifting her and slamming her into the wall, ripping her clothes off, first her blouse, then the zipper of her jeans while she screamed. At 15, she could not bury the enormity of that secret. It was too coarse and explicit. She told her mother and a bunch of us waited. Would her mother believe her? Or, was her husband’s presence more transactional than her daughters agony? When the cops pulled up and dragged his worthless ass to jail (he served significant time) there was a huge sigh among her peers, of which I was one. It was a teaching moment. Telling hurts but it returns you to yourself.
In the black community, sexual violence is layered and sick. The ordinary perpetrator receives scorn in some cases and in others his behavior is trivialized as if it isn’t a big deal; his wage earner capacity carries more freight than a woman’s wounds. If the villain is special, and if he has created racial capital, and if he is someone important, and if he matters to a lot of people, he is protected because of what he has achieved and the savior we interpret him to be.
In the film version of The Color Purple, Oprah’s character Sofia wouldn’t tolerate abuse from her black husband nor a white stranger for that matter, who forced her into jail. That she paid the price is the metaphor Oprah has spent her professional career trying to unravel: sisters, let’s not pay for the wounds someone else gives us. Let’s tell.
In that vein, here we are. An accuser willing to tell something about a famous man. Oprah is pulled into it because of her connection with the Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary (currently untitled) that directly implicates Russell Simmons as an abuser. It has created a lot of predictable emotions that hover around crazy. Black men are angry at Oprah- the black woman they know- instead of at Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering- the white directors they do not know. It is their film, not Oprah’s. But Oprah’s name in the producer credits legitimizes the film as worthwhile and gives her the capital to have her name trashed in the name of racial loyalty. Missing from the outrage is history though. Oprah built a career and an empire listening with a quiet ear to victims of sexual abuse, while nurturing their insecurity. You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
Here’s the outline of the film, what Drew Dixon, a former executive at Def Jam Records, is expected to tell. Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons harassed her. He raped her once, according to Dixon. Even after she quit, she was harassed by L.A. Reid, a titan in the recording industry who gained fame working with Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. Dixon’s story will be public, just like the accusers of R. Kelly went public. The Oprah credit automatically vaults the film into legitimacy.
Because in a doc there isn’t the other side to balance the explosive charges, just the subject’s story, it puts a lot of onus upon Simmons to defend himself and impeach Dixon in the same breath. So he pushed his chips to the center of the table and on Instagram. In his desperation, and intent on changing the conversation, switching the subject, and stopping the discomfort cold, he begged Oprah to stop the film.
He gave a lot of reasons. 1. Oprah singled him out. 2. The claims are very old. 3. There are numerous pieces of evidence that refute the accusers story. 4. He passed lie detector tests. 5. He has daughters, as if that matters. 6. Just because he is a womanizer, doesn’t mean he is a rapist.
It doesn’t absolve him either. What went unsaid in Simmons passive-aggressive litany he posted on Instagram was what usually goes unsaid when black men- men in general really- are defending themselves. Rarely will you hear a male say: sexual assault is a pernicious disease. It leaves scar tissue where muscle used to be. It infects our community and ruins girls and women’s lives. It is perpetrated by gutless men.
Not surprisingly, Simmons spoke about himself and his suffering but didn’t allude to the bigger picture, the elephant in the room so to speak. Women have been assaulted, raped, broken, traumatized and black men have been the perpetrators some of the time. It would have been nice to hear this from a black man who is accomplished: I am not violent. Sexual assault is devastating. It would have changed absolutely nothing but let’s be clear. That soliloquy of Simmons wasn’t for Oprah. It was manipulative and timely to get us on his side. Preaching to the choir wasn’t beneath him.
There is a trial coming up on behalf of Jane Doe who said Simmons raped her in 1988. Simmons tried to get it thrown out but a judge said no. There will be depositions and a trial forthcoming.
By asserting himself as the victim, Russell Simmons glossed himself as the injured party and Oprah as the perpetrator trying to ruin him. It’s a reminder that black women speak about black men at their own risk. If it offends, black women are required to lose something, as if black women’s capital belongs at the intersection of black mens frustration. Patriarchal black culture requires black women to ask permission. Or, be punished. Which is what Simmons tried to do. Punish Oprah.
But in taking on Oprah Winfrey, the most powerful black women in America, Simmons was treading on rocky ground, despite their preexisting relationship.
It was Oprah, the astute businesswoman and not the friend, that put her name on the documentary after vetting the facts. Years ago, she got played by James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, a supposedly true story that was made up. She won’t put herself in that situation again. But this isn’t about Oprah. It’s about Drew Dixon.
Several notable entertainers are ignoring Drew Dixon’s role though and are zeroing in on the Oprah factor. She is being accused of racial disloyalty. Why wasn’t she beating the #MeToo drum when Harvey Weinstein was accused of sex crimes, they want to know? Why didn’t she make a documentary about that? First of all this isn’t her documentary, she is just a part of the finance group.
But to their point. Weinstein’s fuckery up and down and around Hollywood isn’t a crime against the tribe, against his own people. The Russell Simmons doc is less about Oprah punishing black men and more about Oprah listening to the very victims that social media mocks as liars. This is my question. Why isn’t there energy around black women’s voices? Seemingly, men who have built something have more capital than women who are in pain about something. Famous men profess their innocence and we are all aflutter in the unfairness of it all. We can be prosaic deniers at times.
But this one detail strikes me as strange. Russell Simmons mentioned that Oprah is his friend. Well then, why not pick up the phone and ask her to remove her name from the project, let funding be someone else’s problem. Why take it to Instagram, unless his intended target wasn’t Oprah at all. He wanted the people’s court to protect him when the film blows up.
By entering litigation via social media, an act of aggression, Simmons thrust the accusation and himself into the spotlight so when Sundance convenes in a few weeks the documentary will be standing room only. The audience will be primed because Simmons has already created an expectation. That Drew Dixon is a liar. That he is heroic. That Dixon should be interrogated by the public. Who knew about this documentary until Russell Simmons opened his mouth?
Mission accomplished. Social media gifted Simmons the positive vibe he was seeking. It is however, not what matters, the internet’s verdict. Nor is it salient what Russell Simmons believes. That is not what is at stake here. Rather, it is what the film audience experiences after the Sundance premiere. Who do they trust? And later in the 2020 year, it is what a jury will decide about Russell Simmons and rape that really matters.