Oprah, Apple and the decision to exit a #MeToo exposé

(Emily Andrews | The New York Times) Drew Dixon Williams, an ex-employee of Russell Simmons who is at the center of a documentary about women who have accused the hip-hop mogul of sexual misconduct, Dec. 7, 2017. Oprah Winfrey withdrew as executive producer of the documentary and acknowledged that Simmons pushed her to abandon the project, but said her own concerns led her to pull support.

For months, filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering had a pair of dream partners: Oprah Winfrey and Apple, who had committed to back their documentary about women who have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. Booked for the Sundance Film Festival and Apple’s new streaming platform, the film was primed to be the next high-profile media moment of the #MeToo era.

Then the film’s future was abruptly cast into doubt last week after Winfrey withdrew as executive producer and pulled it from Apple, citing creative differences with the directors and suggesting that the picture was being rushed to Sundance “before I believe it is complete.”

But what preceded Winfrey’s announcement was more than just a dispute over filmmaking. It involved an intense campaign by Simmons and his supporters to get Winfrey to pull the plug. That campaign also targeted some of the women in the film on social media and, in at least one case, through direct contact with a family member, in what the women viewed as attempts to threaten and intimidate them ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance, still scheduled for Jan. 25.

Winfrey acknowledged to The New York Times that Simmons had tried to get her to abandon the project. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said.

She said he told her that the woman at the center of the film, Drew Dixon, was lying about their interactions. In addition, Winfrey said, she received phone calls from other people, whom she would not identify, who also questioned Dixon’s credibility.

Winfrey said that she still believed Dixon, although she also thought there were inconsistencies in her account that the film had not adequately addressed, in addition to other issues she had with the film. (The filmmakers say they have voluminous research files corroborating all the women’s accounts.)

Winfrey said it was those reasons, and not Simmons’ protestations, that led her to pull support.

“I told him directly in a phone call that I will not be pressured either into, or out of, backing this film,” she said. “I am only going to do what I believe to be the right thing.”

But it was clear that Winfrey, according to people involved in internal conversations around the film, was struggling over what to do, especially since she had appeared supportive of the movie before Simmons began pushing back against it. She was aware of the message she might send by backing out, given her reputation as a role model for African American women and as one of America’s most trusted voices of moral authority. Winfrey has spoken openly over the years of being a sexual abuse survivor herself.

Her enormous following had made her appealing to Apple as it competed with other streaming services in attracting big names to deliver original content; Netflix had already enlisted the new production company started by Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as a series of accomplished producers. The film about Simmons’ accusers, titled “On the Record,” was to be Winfrey’s debut project with Apple.

When Winfrey announced her departure from the project Jan. 10, she took pains to say that she believed and supported the women in the film. Just hours after her announcement, the Time’s Up campaign — of which Winfrey was an inaugural member — affirmed its own support of the women in a similarly worded statement.

But that has not prevented shock waves from reaching the circle of Simmons’ accusers. Dixon, who has accused Simmons of raping her when she was a young executive at his record label, Def Jam, in 1995, said she felt abandoned.

“I feel like I’m experiencing a second crime,” Dixon said. “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”

Thomasina Perkins-Washington, a representative for Simmons, said in a statement to The Times that Simmons did not do anything unjustified in trying to counter the film. Simmons has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex and has not been charged with a crime.

“If defending himself against terrible accusations is considered intimidation then there would be no justice,” Perkins-Washington said. She added that “written accounts and sworn testimony” showed that Simmons was “incapable” of being violent toward women, but when she was asked for that material she did not provide it.

Disagreements and double binds

Until Winfrey pulled out, the dispute over the film had pitted two titans of media and entertainment against each other. Simmons helped establish the big business of hip-hop and branched out early into film and fashion. The two had a decades-long relationship before a split when more than a dozen women began to come forward to accuse him of misconduct including rape and assault.

Their clash also highlighted the fissures among African Americans over their place in the #MeToo movement. In the film, Dixon and other women say that when the floodgates opened after the accusations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, they still were unsure whether American society at large would listen to the testimonies of black women.

When documentaries about R. Kelly and Michael Jackson last year led to re-examinations of the accusations against them — and, in Kelly’s case, criminal charges — an angry debate roiled on Twitter about whether those men were being singled out for attention because of their race.

One result, according to Dream Hampton, the activist and filmmaker behind “Surviving R. Kelly,” is that black women remain afraid to speak up.

“This is a way of shutting down black women,” Hampton said, “that the victimhood of black men in the criminal justice system supersedes all other harm.”

As Dixon put it: “This is the ultimate double bind that black women face, where there is nowhere for us to go. There is no one to protect us. There is no one to help us. And our own community turns against us when you dare to speak out.”

Winfrey said she also began to have concerns that the film needed to say more about the broader cultural context, in particular the “debauchery” of the music business at the time. Women throughout the industry were contending with misogyny and worse.

Winfrey sent the documentary to a friend, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, seeking advice. She asked DuVernay to watch it with an eye toward how well the two filmmakers, who are white, captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women.

DuVernay, who directed “Selma” and the Netflix series “When They See Us,” about the so-called Central Park Five who were wrongly imprisoned for rape, gave a harsh critique, which was later echoed in a letter Winfrey sent to the filmmakers informing them of her withdrawal.

In an interview, DuVernay said that Winfrey faced public fallout no matter what she did.

“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 said. “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.”

The filmmakers described Winfrey’s change of heart as “sudden” and say they “were completely caught off guard” by her decision to exit the film.

“We had a really great working relationship with Ms. Winfrey, Harpo and Apple throughout the many stages of crafting the film,” they said in a statement. “We feel we more than delivered a finished film that is in keeping with the qualities of excellence, integrity and veracity that we hold dear.”

A partnership fractures

The film’s primary character is Dixon, whose account details a wrenching accusation of how Simmons violently raped her after luring Dixon — then a young executive at his label — into his apartment one night under the pretext of hearing a CD.

Dixon first told her story publicly to The Times in 2017, and the film, which tracks her over two years, recounts her struggle over whether to go on the record with the paper. Some scenes capture parts of her phone calls with Times reporters during that period.

Dan Cogan of Impact Partners, the financial backer of the Oscar-winning documentaries “Icarus” and “The Cove,” introduced Winfrey to Dick and Ziering, whose work over the last decade has centered on sexual abuse, first in the military with “The Invisible War” and then on college campuses with “The Hunting Ground.”

According to Cogan, a partnership was formed in February between Winfrey and the filmmakers to create a series of projects about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Dixon’s story was set to be the inaugural piece that would lead into a series focused on different industries. All were eager for Winfrey’s involvement, both because of her access to the new streaming service and because of her ability to infuse the films with her unique point of view. “For a very long time, she was an extraordinary partner,” said Cogan.

In the filmmakers’ retelling, the two teams worked closely on the production, sharing notes and viewing each cut of the film. In October, with Winfrey’s approval, Apple submitted the movie for inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival, the country’s premier exhibition for independent films.

A month later executives at Harpo responded to the final cut of the film with an email that read in part: “We absolutely loved watching the latest cut — it’s incredible.”

After learning that the film had been accepted to Sundance, Apple and Harpo touted the collaboration in a joint news release Dec. 3 and called the film “a profound examination of race, gender, class and intersectionality, and the toll assaults take on their victims and society at large.”

Trouble began the next day, once Sundance officially announced its lineup. It was the first time any public mention of the film had made clear that Simmons was the accused person at the center of it.

Winfrey, while in South Africa, received a call from someone she said she knew and trusted who cast doubts on Dixon’s story. Those doubts, Winfrey said, “gave me pause.” Later on, Winfrey said, Simmons called her directly.

Winfrey said that over various calls and text messages to her, Simmons seemed “frightened.” She said she often did not respond.

Once, she said, he implored her, “Look what you’re doing to my daughters.”

“I said, ‘I take deep offense to you thinking I’m doing anything to your daughters,’” Winfrey recalled.

Winfrey’s team immediately asked the filmmakers to provide detailed timelines of the accusations against Simmons and what the filmmakers had done to corroborate the accounts. The filmmakers provided the information the next day.

Within days, Simmons took to Instagram to mount a public defense, and rapper 50 Cent accused Winfrey of “only going after her own” — alleging that by supporting accusers of Simmons and Michael Jackson, she was turning her back on the black community.

In an online video, Simmons discussed how to challenge the credibility of women by asking “how many times they went to jail, to a mental institution, have they accused five or more people, what does their father say.”

He added: “Questions that were not asked before may now be asked, and our sister may be embarrassed.”

Sil Lai Abrams, who accused Simmons of raping her in 1994, said she immediately felt that the “mental institution” line referred to her; the day after the alleged attack, she said, she attempted suicide. “He is using very dark tactics to intimidate and terrorize me and the others,” she said in an interview.

Dixon felt targeted by the line about fathers. A few weeks ago, she said, her father was approached by an old acquaintance, Yolanda Caraway, who asked him whether Dixon had ever falsely accused any man of sexual misconduct. The meeting rattled Dixon, who said she immediately suspected that Simmons was behind it.

“He is trying to muzzle our voices again,” she said.

Caraway, a longtime political operative in Washington, acknowledged that she had met with Dixon’s father, Arrington Dixon, a former City Council member. She added: “The conversation I had with anybody is none of your business.” Dixon’s representative at the time, Ann Walker Marchant, said that she called Caraway to ask whether she was working for Simmons and that Caraway responded: “He’s my friend.”

A demand for changes

Winfrey said she took her concerns to the filmmakers with an ultimatum.

“We need to pull from Sundance until we can give ourselves a chance to retool this film,” Winfrey said she told them, “or I am going to have to take my name off.”

The filmmakers reassured Winfrey that they could address the issues she raised, and she remained on board.

“We know from working in the sexual assault field that changing any distribution plan after there has been an announcement is not a good idea,” said Ziering. “If we were to say we are not going to Sundance, people will infer that there is an issue with the credibility of the women in the film.”

On Dec. 18, the day after DuVernay viewed the film, Harpo sent the filmmakers a new set of requests.

According to people familiar with the chain of events, the two filmmakers addressed Winfrey’s concerns by conducting additional interviews with experts to contextualize the issue of misogyny in hip-hop. They also included a three-minute montage that introduced five more Simmons accusers with a technique that featured one woman’s line bleeding into the next woman’s story. The effect leaves viewers with a sense that Simmons is a serial predator who used specific, repetitive behaviors to lure women.

The new cut of the movie was delivered to Harpo on Jan. 8. Two days later, Winfrey sent the filmmakers a letter explaining her dissatisfaction and telling them she was withdrawing. The letter says in part: “I think it is a disservice to the women and this film to have their gut-wrenching disclosures reduced to a montage of sound bites and not give them the stature of elevating their stories.”

The film is still scheduled to show at Sundance, and the filmmakers have hired United Talent Agency to serve as its sales agents. It’s unclear whether the high-profile fallout between Winfrey and the filmmakers will harm its commercial prospects or make it an intriguing purchase for an eager distributor.

Dixon said she still looked up to Winfrey “as a business woman, as a fearless creative professional and as a fellow survivor.”

But, she added, “Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for any of the silence breakers in the film whether or not this movie is worth seeing, and Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t get to decide for the whole rest of the world.”

“So all I hope,” she added, “is that somebody else will champion this film.”

Return to Story