Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “In the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that the didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials were were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,. but she tearfully admits that it took her years to proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir: “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context to the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mentions two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing. In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

Review: ‘On the Record,’ starring Drew Dixon, Sheri Sher, Sil Lai Abrams, Jenny Lumet, Alexia Norton Jones, Tarana Burke and Kierna Mayo

May 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Drew Dixon in “On the Record” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max)

“On the Record”

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering

Culture Representation: The documentary “On the Record” interviews a predominantly black group of people (with some representation of white people)—including #MeToo accusers, media people and activists—who discuss the #MeToo movement and accusations against disgraced entertainment mogul Russell Simmons.

Culture Clash: Most of the accusers are black, and they say there’s extra pressure on them to stay silent if they are accusing a black man because of the justice system’s racial inequalities for black men.

Culture Audience: “On the Record” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the #MeToo movement and social justice issues.

Drew Dixon and Ella Wylde in “On the Record” (Photo courtesy of HBO Max)

It’s hard enough for many survivors of sexual assault to come forward, but for many people of color, there are added layers of complexity if the person making the assault claim is accusing someone of their own race. Black people are particularly sensitive to being called a “race traitor” when it comes to putting black men in the U.S. criminal justice system, which has a checkered history of racial inequalities. The meaningful documentary “On the Record” shines a light on this issue, as it tells the stories of several women who claim that they’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed by disgraced entertainment mogul Russell Simmons.

Simmons is best known for being the co-founder of Def Jam (which started off as a hip-hop record label and expanded into television and film), Rush Communications and the fashion brands Phat Farm and Baby Phat. In late 2017, at the beginning of the #MeToo Movement resurgence, several women came forward to accuse Simmons of rape or other sexual assault. He has denied all the allegations, by saying all the encounters were consensual. However, he stepped down from his businesses shortly after the public accusations.

One of the accusers is Drew Dixon, who claims that Simmons raped her in 1995, when she was an A&R executive at Def Jam. Dixon gets the most screen time in “On the Record,” because her process of deciding to come forward to The New York Times is chronicled in the documentary. Part of the documentary feels like a semi-biography of Dixon, since so much of her personal history is in the film.

The movie also shows a great deal of Dixon at home (where she’s shown listening to some of the music she worked on and even digging through her stuff to find an old Junior Mafia demo tape), as well as revisiting some of the places where she worked early in her music career. She’s also seen visiting with friends, as they discuss her decision to go public with her accusations. And even some of Dixon’s phone conversations with New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli (who co-wrote the New York Times article with Melena Ryzik) are in the documentary.

Dixon is the daughter of politically active parents—her mother Sharon was elected the first African American female mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1991—and she has an education from prestigious universities. (She’s a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Business School.) Although she came from a privileged background and likes a wide variety of music, Dixon says in “On the Record” that her heart lies with the street culture of hip-hop and other urban music.

“Music has always been a language I spoke,” Dixon says in the documentary. “Hip-hop had this additional appeal that was empowering for people who were otherwise overlooked. I grew up feeling that it was my mission as the daughter of local politicians. Hip-hop combined the two things that I loved: activism and this sense of pride with music. It seems like it could, I thought, to change the world.”

She knew she wanted to work in showbiz when she had the experience of booking the entertainment for her mother’s mayoral inauguration party. Rare Essence, Big Daddy Kane and Kwamé were the performers. It was then that Dixon decided that she had a knack for working with artists, so she had her sights set on working in a record company’s A&R (artists and repertoire) department, which is responsible for signing artists and overseeing music that goes on albums. After she graduated from Stanford in 1992, Dixon moved to New York City and began paying her dues in the music business.

Dixon worked as a receptionist at Empire Artist Management, Jive Records and Warner Bros. Records. She eventually became an executive at Zomba Publishing. In 1994, she landed what she thought at the time was her dream job: working in the A&R department at Def Jam Records, which was riding high with hip-hop artists such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy, EPMD, Warren G and Redman.

One of her first major successes at Def Jam was helping compile the hit soundtrack for the 1995 documentary film “The Show,” which featured songs from the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Mary J. Blige, Method Man, Warren G, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and A Tribe Called Quest. Dixon also mentions in the documentary how in her early days in the music business, she knew the Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie Smalls) before he was famous, and he would look out for her in the streets that were his territory where he was a drug dealer. Dixon also takes credit for being the person who came up with the idea to pair Blige and Method Man for their 1995 hit “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.”

In the documentary, Dixon goes into extensive detail about sexual misconduct she says that she experienced while she was a Def Jam employee. Dixon says that Simmons started off with saying crude sexual comments and trying to kiss her, which she felt pressured to laugh off at the time because she was afraid that he would lose her job if she complained. She says his behavior worsened, as he began sexually exposing himself to her.

Dixon remembers how she felt about it at the time: “I thought he was like a tragic ADD [attention-deficit disorder] puppy dog that I had to keep retraining … He always sheepishly apologized later, so I thought, ‘He feels bad.'”

She says that Simmons violently raped after he lured her into his home by telling her that he wanted her to hear some music from a new artist. According to Dixon, Simmons overpowered her, ignored her frantic attempts to stop the assault, and then afterward acted as if the encounter was consensual. Almost all his accusers tell similar stories.

Dixon says she was so traumatized that she eventually quit working for Def Jam. She became an A&R executive at Arista Records in 1996, where she had success working with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, TLC, Usher and Carlos Santana. But things began to go sour for her at Arista when her boss Clive Davis was pushed out of the company and Antonio “L.A.” Reid became president/CEO of Arista in 2000.

Dixon says that Reid sexually harassed her repeatedly, and when she rejected his advances, he began to undermine her work. She says that she tried to sign Kanye West and John Legend to Arista, but Reid refused to let her sign them, and she believes it was partly out of spite. Dixon eventually quit Arista in 2004, and enrolled in Harvard Business School. However, she hasn’t worked at a major record company since then.

Reid (who was fired from Sony Music’s Epic Records in May 2017, because of alleged sexual harassment) and Simmons declined to be interviewed for the documentary. They each issued denial statements that are in the film. After the documentary was made, Simmons and rapper/actor 50 Cent made public statements pressuring executive producer Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ to drop the movie, which they eventually did. HBO Max acquired “On the Record” film after the movie’s well-received world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

In “On the Record,” Dixon says that there were three things that happened in the fall of 2017 that compelled her to go public with her accusations: (1) When screenwriter/producer Jenny Lumet (daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet) came forward with her own accusations about being raped by Simmons; (2) when Dixon saw the courage of Roy Moore’s accuser Beverly Young, who claimed that the disgraced politician sexually assaulted her when she was an underage teenager; and (3) when Dixon saw the statement that actor Harold Perrineau made about his actress daughter Aurora, who came forward with sexual-assault accusations against writer Maury Miller.

Dixon comments, “I thought, ‘I’d like to be a warrior. I’m tired of being a victim. I’ve been a victim for 22 years. Let me see what the other thing feels like. It can’t be worse.’ And that’s when I said, ‘Okay. I will go on the record.'”

Another accuser of Russell Simmons in the film is writer Alexia Norton Jones, who talks about how her past trauma still affects her. “He took a piece of me with him and he carried it with him for three fucking decades,” she says of Simmons. Dixon comments on going public after keeping silent for several years: “It was like pressing play on a movie I had paused 22 years ago in the middle of the scariest scene.” Other accusers in the film include Sheri Sher, a founding member of the all-female rap group Mercedes Ladies; singer/songwriter Tina Baker; publicist Kelly Cutrone; and model Keri Claussen Khalighi.

Sil Lai Abrams, another Simmons accuser who claims that he raped her, was an executive assistant at Def Jam in the 1990s. She describes the work environment: “It didn’t feel like an office, so much as you were almost like in a club.” Abrams comments that although there is “tremendous mobility for women” in the music business, “a lot of sexual harassment was baked into the culture.” Dixon also mentions that when she began working for Def Jam, Lyor Cohen (who was president of the record company and Simmons’ second-in-command at the time), wrongly assumed that Dixon had slept with Simmons to get the job.

Although some of Simmons’ accusers are white (such as Baker, Cutrone and Khalighi), most of the Simmons accusers are black. #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke says, “A lot of black women felt disconnected to #MeToo initially. They felt like, ‘That’s great this sister is out there. We support her as an individual, but this movement is not for us.”

“Intersectionality” author Kimberlé Crenshaw comments on how #MeToo accusations are handled and perceived: “America picks and chooses who they are going to listen to. Not only does class have an indicator, but what that person looks like is an indicator. So, who we listen to is who we see as valuable in America.”

Dr. Joan Morgan (a feminist/cultural critic) and author Shanita Hubbard also weigh in with their thoughts on how black women might experience the #MeToo movement differently from other people. “I thought the black community would hate my guts,” Dixon says in explaining one of the reasons why she was very reluctant to come forward with her accusations about Simmons, who was responsible for employing and financially enriching a lot of black people.

Kierna Mayo, a former writer/editor at The Source (a leading hip-hop magazine), has this to say about black #MeToo survivors: “It’s high time that the lens turns to us, and that we’re allowed to be heard—and more importantly to be believed.” Mayo says that she believes the Simmons accusers because she knows what it’s like to be alone with Simmons. In the documentary interview, she doesn’t come right out and say that she has a #MeToo story about him, but she hints that if she did, she’s not ready to talk about it on camera.

One of the more powerful moments in the film is when Dixon, Abrams and Lumet meet up to show support for each other.  Lumet says, “I didn’t expect anyone to be in it for the long haul with me. I’m glad I met you guys, because we’re in it for the long haul.”

The three women are also very candid in discussing colorism and admitting that being light-skinned black people gives them a “light privilege” advantage that people with darker skin might not have. Dixon comes right out and says: “Part of the reason why I did speak out is because I have ‘light privilege.'”

The documentary is undoubtedly sympathetic to the accusers and takes the viewpoint the accusers should not be vilified for how long it might have taken them to come forward, because every individual has a unique path in coming to terms with whatever trauma they experienced. Still, Lumet expresses guilt that is common for people who waited several years to tell their #MeToo stories: “I wish I could’ve gotten my shit together earlier so he [Russell Simmons] would’ve left everyone alone.”

“Off the Record” is a very female-centric movie, but there are a few men who are interviewed in the movie. Miguel Mojica, who was an A&R coordinator for EMI Records around the time that he knew Dixon back in the mid-1990s, says in the documentary that Dixon told him that Simmons raped her not long after it allegedly happened.

Mojica remembers that when he first met Dixon, “She was a bright spirit” and “we hit it off right away.” But he says she also changed after the alleged rape and wasn’t as light-hearted as she was when they first met. Other men interviewed in the movie are rapper/music producer Daddy-O and attorney Gary Watson, a former outside counsel to Def Jam.

Going public with the accusations wasn’t the only major life change for Dixon that’s chronicled in “Off the Record.” In the documentary, Dixon says that she asked her husband for a divorce, partly because of what she was going through with coming forward as a #MeToo survivor. (Dixon’s ex-husband and their two children are not in the movie.) But on the bright side, Dixon is shown taking steps to get back in the music industry, as there’s a scene of her mentoring a young singer named Ella Wylde.

Although Dixon gets the majority of the screen time compared to the other accusers, “On the Record” co-directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering don’t lose sight of the overall message that they obviously want the film to have: Sexual misconduct should not be excused because of someone’s race, and #MeToo survivors should not be shamed or pressured to keep silent because of their race.

HBO Max will premiere “On the Record” on May 27, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Tape,’ starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Annarosa Mudd and Tarek Bishara

April 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape”

Directed by Deborah Kampmeier 

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s modern-day community of aspiring actors, the sexual-misconduct drama “Tape” has a cast with all of the main characters as white and middle-class, with some African American and Latino characters in small speaking roles.

Culture Clash: An aspiring actress who went through a harrowing sexual experience with a sleazy director plans to get revenge on him by exposing his misdeeds.

Culture Audience: “Tape” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in #MeToo stories, but the movie fails the #MeToo movement by having a completely ludicrous and unrealistic ending.

Annarosa Mudd in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape” writer/director Deborah Kampmeier says that the movie is based on the real-life #MeToo experience of a friend of hers. However, in telling this story and making it into a movie, Kampmeier ditches the realism in the last 15 minutes and turns it into a melodramatic, ridiculous mess that is in no way believable and cheapens the message that the film is trying to convey. There are tacky Lifetime movies that have more realistic endings than “Tape.”

The beginning of “Tape” starts out promising enough, because it looks like it’s going to be an edgy independent drama about a traumatized woman seeking some kind of self-empowerment by getting revenge on the person who has harmed her. The opening scene is very bloody and graphic, as it shows a woman in her 20s  (played by Annarosa Mudd) in her bathroom, putting a ball piercing in the middle of her tongue and then cutting her wrists with a razor blade. She then shaves off most of her long, dark hair until she has a buzz cut. And she also straps on a hidden camera around her abdomen.

What is going on with her? Viewers don’t find out her name—Rosa Terrano—until about midway through the story when she goes to one of her social-media accounts. Until then, she wears all black and sunglasses, as she lurks around a shabby studio that’s being used for auditions. At one of the auditions, she hangs out in the waiting room with all the other young women who are there.

Rosa stands out from the rest of the auditioners, because they’re all long-haired brunettes with a bright-eyed wholesome look, while Rosa looks like a mopey skinhead who’s on her way to a Marilyn Manson concert. At the audition, a 15-year-old girl admits she isn’t on the audition list. She’s crushed when she finds out that she won’t get a chance because she didn’t follow the emailed instructions to get on the list. One of the auditioners is friendly and empathetic Pearl Osborne (played by Isabelle Fuhrman), who comforts the girl before she goes into the audition room.

During her audition, Pearl is asked by the director Lux St. Seguin (played by Tarek Bishara), who’s in the room with a female assistant or casting agent, why Pearl thinks she’s the perfect candidate for the project, which is a reality show. Pearl answers that she’s talented, but she admits she needs to market herself better. It’s the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Pearl lacks confidence and is therefore a vulnerable target for a sexual predator.

After her audition, Rosa and Pearl have a brief conversation in the waiting room, where they exchange pleasantries. Rosa tells Pearl that she auditioned with a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” Pearl says she doesn’t know that play, but she knows director Julie Taymor’s 1999 movie adaption “Titus.” Pearl says she remembers the movie has a scene with a woman who is raped and then mutilated by her rapists, by cutting out her tongue and dismembering her hands so she won’t report the crime. The obvious parallel is how Rosa mutilated herself in the beginning of the story.

For the vast majority of the movie, Rosa plays private detective, by following Pearl—Rosa got Pearl’s home address by taking a photo of the sign-in list at the audition—and videotaping Pearl without her knowledge. This is a plot hole for the movie, because out of all of the women who auditioned for Lux that day, how does Rosa know that Pearl is going to be Lux’s next victim? Shouldn’t Rosa be secretly following Lux instead?

Pearl gets a callback for the auditions, and Rosa just happens to be there too, and she makes an excuse for not going into the audition room. However, Lux sees Rosa hanging around outside and asks if he knows her. Based on Rosa’s reaction, she definitely knows him, but she doesn’t want him to recognize her.

Pearl is then seen alone at a dining table, where she tearfully speaks to her mother by phone and expresses her frustrations and self-doubt over constantly being rejected for various reasons when she goes to auditions. After the phone call, Pearl goes into the bathroom and vomits up what she just ate, and then looks in the mirror and practices what she hopes will be her Academy Awards speech someday.

It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because Fuhrman (who’s by far the best actor in the cast) handles it very realistically. What’s chilling about the scene is that there are countless aspiring actresses who’ve probably done the exact same thing. Although it’s possible for male actors to develop eating disorders over body insecurities, more often than not, bulimics are female. Meanwhile, as this is taking place, Rosa is seated at an outdoor table in Times Square looking on a computer tablet at all the video footage that she has of Pearl.

It isn’t long before Rosa, once again lurking outside the audition studio, sees Pearl again. Pearl is in tears because she didn’t make the cut in the latest round of auditions. However, Lux the director approaches Pearl on the street before she walks away to tell her that she’s too special to be in a reality show. And he has good news for her: She would be perfect for his “protégée program,” where he can work one-on-one with her to help her break into the business. Of course, Rosa is standing close enough to catch all of this on her hidden camera.

From there, Rosa prepares to secretly videorecord what happens during Lux’s “private acting session” with Pearl. Rosa bribes  a guy who does security for a run-down warehouse-styled studio area to enter one of the studios and plant a hidden cameras in there. One of the cameras she plants in a light switch, and another camera she plants in a desk clock. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Rosa has been there before and knows exactly what’s going to happen to Pearl.

Lux is as sleazy as you think he might be. He’s got a video camera set up in the middle of the room, whose few furnishings include a bed, and it’s very easy to see how this “private acting session” is going to go. “Tape” shows that Lux is not a Harvey Weinstein-type bully but someone who’s a smooth-talking manipulator, who keeps telling his victims that they’ll be “empowered” by letting go of their sexual inhibitions with him. He tells Pearl that she’s free to go any time she wants, but then he warns her that she’ll just be going back to her frustrating existence as an out-of-of work, aspiring actress, and he can change her life for  the better if she just does what he suggests.

He also keeps repeating that acting in “the real world” requires actions that “aren’t for the meek” and are the opposite of what’s taught in formal acting classes. And he constantly mentions that almost every famous actress has done nudity and sex scenes. It progresses to the point where he gets completely naked and tells Pearl that in order to “get real” in the nude scene that he wants to film of her, he has to have sex with her on camera.

Pearl is extremely nervous and uncertain, but in his attempt to wear her down, he shows her the sex scene that Halle Berry did in “Monster’s Ball” to prove that actresses can win an Oscar for doing an explicit sex scene in a movie. He also tells her that sex scenes in movies that win Oscars are not simulated but real. It’s impossible to know how many “casting couch” situations have happened where aspiring actresses have been told the same things by predatory people in the industry, but “Tape” capably demonstrates that there are plenty of vulnerable and desperate people who will be targets for this type of manipulation.

Meanwhile, Rosa is outside a nearby building and watching and recording all of this hidden camera footage happening live. She has the choice to intervene or not. Does she put a stop to what’s going on? And what exactly does she plan to do with the video footage? Those questions are answered in the movie, which should have ended by answering those questions.

But no, the last 15 minutes of the movie shift into such a wildly different direction and tone—so much so that this plot twist seems like it was meant for another film altogether. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that it completely goes against Rosa’s meticulous planning that she had in the previous majority of the story.

What Rosa does at the end of the film is so poorly thought-out, and the reactions of the people around her are so mind-numbingly unrealistic, that it makes “Tape” a disappointing, failed attempt at being an important feminist movie. “Tape” wants desperately to become a classic film for the #MeToo era, but the movie’s dumb ending means that “Tape” won’t even register as a footnote.

Full Moon Films released “Tape” through a Crowdcast virtual theatrical release on March 26, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release is on April 10, 2020.

Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in prison, makes first public statement since his conviction of sex crimes

March 11, 2020

by Colleen McGregor

Harvey Weinstein at The Weinstein Company party in celebration of “Wind River” at Nikki Beach in Cannes, Frances, on May 20, 2017. (Photo by Dave Benett)

In a New York City courtroom on March 11, 2020, disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for a first-degree criminal sexual act and a third-degree rape. Weinstein was found guilty of these charges on February 24, 2020. On the same day of his conviction, he was found not guilty of three other charges, which were more serious: two counts of predatory sexual assault and one count of first-degree rape involving two women (Miriam Haley and Jessica Mann) in separate incidents. The jury, consisting of seven men and five women, deliberated for nearly a week.

Weinstein’s prison sentence could have ranged from five years to 29 years. According to the Associated Press, Judge James Burke commented when delivering the 23-year sentence to Weinstein, who is 67: “Although this is a first conviction, this is not a first offense.” Weinstein, who did not testify during his trial, continues to deny all sexual-misconduct allegations against him.

After his sentencing, Weinstein gave his first public statement since he was convicted of these sex crimes. According to the Associated Press, Weinstein said, “To all the women who testified, we may have different truths, but I have great remorse for all of you … Thousands of men are losing due process. I’m worried about this country. I’m totally confused. I think men are confused about these issues.”

His attorneys are expected to appeal the conviction. His defense attorney Donna Rotunno commented after Weinstein’s prison sentence was delivered: “We were looking for fairness, and we didn’t get it.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said that Weinstein’s sentence “puts sexual predators and abusive partners in all segments of society on notice.”

Weinstein is also facing sexual-assault charges in Los Angeles, where he is accused of raping one woman and sexually assaulting another woman on two consecutive nights during Oscars week in 2013. He is expected to be extradited to face trial in Los Angeles on those charges.

Weinstein was first arrested in May 2018, when he turned himself into the New York Police Department. He was arrested and charged with rape and forced oral sex. According to the Associated Press, the rape charge was for an unidentified woman who claims that Weinstein raped her at a New York hotel room in 2013. The oral sex charge was for a 2004 incident in which former aspiring actress Lucia Evans claims that Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex on him at his New York office.

In October 2018, the charge involving Evans was dismissed. According to CNN, Evans’ attorney Carrie Goldberg implied that the charge was dropped for political reasons because of a “feud between the NYPD and the DA’s office.” Goldberg added that the dropped charge “does speak to a system desperate in need of reform.”

Weinstein’s conviction and imprisonment for sex crimes are considered landmarks for the #MeToo movement, which became a major cultural force in October 2017, when the New York Times and the New Yorker reported that Weinstein has a long history of sexual misconduct allegations, going back as far as the 1980s. The reports detailed how he silenced many of his alleged victims with financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements. In the years since those reports were published, more than 100 women have come forward to claim that Weinstein sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. Weinstein continues to claim that any sex acts he committed were consensual.

After the reports were published, Weinstein was fired by The Weinstein Company (the entertainment firm that Harvey co-founded in 2005 with his brother Bob); Harvey’s second wife, Georgina Chapman, divorced him; and the company filed for bankruptcy. The Weinstein Company has since been purchased by investment group Lantern Entertainment.

In March 2019, Lantern and Gary Barber launched Spyglass Media Group, which will own the library previously owned by The Weinstein Company. Italian film distributor Eagle Pictures, cinema chain Cineworld (which own Regal Cinemas) and later AT&T’s Warner Bros. were brought in as minority holders. The library includes Oscar-winning movies “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Iron Lady,” as well as partial ownership of the fashion reality TV competition “Project Runway.”

Before co-founding The Weinstein Company, the Weinstein brothers co-founded Miramax Films in 1979. Miramax was the studio behind numerous Oscar-winning films, such as “My Left Foot,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “No Country for Old Men.” Miramax was sold to Disney in 1993, then to Filmyard Holdings in 2010, and then to the beIN Media Group in 2016. In 2019, beIN sold a 49% stake in Miramax to ViacomCBS.

Several industry organizations (including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) have expelled Harvey Weinstein from their membership, and he has been sued by several women for sexual harassment/sexual misconduct. Ashley Judd, one of his accusers, is also suing him for defamation because she claims Harvey Weinstein damaged her reputation and career after she rejected his sexual advances.

Since the accusations about Weinstein were made public, there have been several books, news stories and documentaries about his scandals. The most notable feature-length documentary so far about Weinstein is Hulu’s “Untouchable,” which began streaming in September 2019. The entertainment industry website Deadline reported in 2018 that Plan B (Brad Pitt’s production company) and Annapurna Pictures are planning a dramatic feature film about how The New York Times broke the Weinstein #MeToo story. The movie, if it’s made, will likely begin filming after all of Weinstein’s criminal cases have been resolved.

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall is widely considered to be the turning point of the #MeToo cultural movement, which has survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault publicly telling their stories and seeking justice. The #MeToo movement has also led to sexual misconduct allegations against many other famous and powerful men, often resulting in the accused losing their jobs and/or being sued. Harvey Weinstein now joins Bill Cosby as two of the once-powerful men in the entertainment industry who have been convicted of sexual assault since the resurgence of the #MeToo movement.

2020 Athena Film Festival: movie reviews and recaps

March 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Athena Film Festival

Pictured  from left to right at the 2020 Athena Film Festival Awards, held February 26 at Barnard College in New York City: filmmaker Effie T. Brown, Athena Film Festival co-founder/artistic director Melissa Silverstein, filmmaker Unjoo Moon, actress Beanie Feldstein, Athena Film Festival co-founder Kathryn Kolbert and Barnard College president Sian Beilock. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for the Athena Film Awards)

The 10th annual Athena Film Festival—which took place at New York City’s Barnard College from February 27 to March 1, 2020—once again had an impressive presentation of female-oriented movies, panels and networking events.

The festival was preceded on February 26 by the annual Athena Film Festival Awards, which honored actress Beanie Feldstein, filmmaker Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and producer Effie T. Brown with Athena Awards, while filmmaker Unjoo Moon received the event’s first Breakthrough Award. Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman” was the opening-night film at the festival, where the movie had its New York premiere. Gloria Steinem, filmmaker Greta Gerwig (a 2006 Barnard graduate), director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), actress Lorraine Toussaint and Oscar-winning filmmaker Dan Cogan (“Icarus”) were among the presenters at the award show, while singer Arianna Afsar performed at the event. Also in attendance were actress Andrea Riseborough, filmmaker Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and author/public speaker Verna Myers.

One of the changes to Athena Film Festival this year was that it became more environmentally conscious by not having pamphlets, which were provided at previous Athena Film Festivals. (People who still needed to see a schedule on paper could go to the information area, which had a paper schedule on display.) Saving paper by not having pamphlets and encouraging people to go online for information are steps in the right direction for helping the environment. Kudos to the Athena Film Festival producers for being forward-thinking about this important issue.

Almost all of the movies had their world premieres at other festivals, but there were several that had their New York premieres at the Athena Film Festival. (Full reviews will be posted later. This article will be updated with links to those reviews.)

The New York premieres at the Athena Film Festival included these movies:

The narrative centerpiece film was “Lost Girls,” a mystery thriller directed by Liz Garbus and starring Amy Ryan as a mother searching for her missing 24-year-old daughter. The movie is based on the true story of Mari Gilbert’s quest to find justice for her daughter Shannan Gilbert, who was among the victims of the Gilbo Beach Murders on New York’s Long Island. The story includes how Mari and other family members of the murder victims joined forces to try find out who murdered their loved ones. Netflix will begin streaming “Lost Girls” on March 13, 2020.

If you liked Netflix’s 2019 “Unbelieveable” limited series (which was based on a true crime story about the hunt for a serial rapist), you’ll also like “Lost Girls.” The movie’s screenplay, written by Michael Werwie, is based on Robert Kolker’s book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.”

“Lost Girls” team members at the Athena Film Festival premiere of the movie at Barnard College in New York City on February 29, 2020. Pictured from left to right: producer Anne Carey, actress Molly Brown, actress Amy Ryan, actress Miriam Shor, actress Lola Kirke, actress Oona Laurence and director Liz Garbus. (Photo by Carla Hay)

At the Q&A after the “Lost Girls” screening, which was attended by many of the real-life people who are portrayed in the film, Garbus said that she wanted to direct this movie: “I fell in love with the story. I felt if I could be part of telling and elevate the story again and appreciating the incredible work by these women in keeping their loved ones’ stories alive, then it would be a great honor.”

Ryan, who plays Mari Gilbert in “Lost Girls,” was visibly moved when she spoke to Mari’s daughter Sherre Gilbert, who was in the front row of the audience.  “I am so grateful to use my voice to help to keep this story going …This story matters. it was really an honor to play your mom.” Ryan added that the actresses who portrayed the grieving allies shared a real-life friendship on the movie set. “Our connection to each other was an amazing reflection of that … I just think when you get a group of women together in a room, it can be very powerful.”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was another standout film at the Athena Film Festival. This drama, written and directed by Eliza Hittman, follows the emotionally harrowing journey of a 17-year-old named Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan), who has to travel from her hometown in rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion for an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. The movie realistically shows the obstacles she faces, as well as the toll that her abortion decision takes on her physically and psychologically. Hittman had been scheduled to do a post-premiere Q&A at the Athena Film Festival,  but she had to bow out to attend the Berlin International Film Festival, where “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won the Silver Bear Award (second-place prize). Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

The dramatic film “The Perfect Candidate,” directed and co-written by Haifaa al-Mansour, is about a woman named Maryam (played by Mila Al Zahrani), who’s facing a different type of obstacle. She’s a Saudi Arabian female doctor who running for her local city council, in a culture where women rarely try to be political leaders because it’s considered unladylike and almost taboo. Not surprisingly, she faces a lot of sexism and degrading reactions to her campaign. It’s a well-acted film that provides further insight into how far some countries need to go before they won’t place a stigma on gender-equality opportunities that women in other countries take for granted. Music Box Films will release “The Perfect Candidiate” in U.S. cinemas, on a date to be announced. The movie was already released in Saudi Arabia, which selected “The Perfect Candidate” as the country’s official 2019 Academy Awards submission for Best International Feature Film.

Perhaps the best underrated gem of the festival was the Canadian drama “Kuessipan,” directed and co-written by Myriam Verreault and Naomi Fontaine, based on Fontaine’s novel of the same time. The mostly French-language movie tells the story of two teenage girls in Québec who’ve been best friends since childhood, but their lives are going in different directions. Mikuan (played by Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) comes from a stable family and is headed to college, while Shaniss (played by Yamie Grégoire) comes from a troubled broken home and is an unwed teenage mother who’s dropped out of school. What makes this story different from others with a similar concept is that the girls happen to be from the Innu tribe. Their racial identity and issues related to their culture are rarely seen in movies, so it’s refreshing that this film does it in a very authentic way. The movie is engaging and very well-made, from beginning to end. “Kuessipan” is highly recommended for anyone who likes coming-of-age stories that ring true.

 

The only feature film to have its world premiere at the festival was the documentary “Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing,” directed by Paula Weiman-Kelman, about female rabbi/activist Rachel Cowan and how she lived with terminal brain cancer before her death in 2018. The movie played to a sold-out audience. It’s an intimate and starkly made film that treats Cowan with dignity and respect. At the Q&A that was held after the screening, Weiman-Kelman said that she started filming the documentary before Cowan was diagnosed with brain cancer, but Cowan graciously wanted her to keep filming after the diagnosis.

The inspiring documentary “Woman in Motion” (directed by Todd Thompson) tells the story of “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nicholas’ 1970s campaign to recruit more women and people of color to join NASA and become astronauts. This movie would make a great companion piece to the 2016 Oscar-nominated hit drama “Hidden Figures,” which told the story of three African American women who were underappreciated pioneers at NASA in the 1960s. “Woman in Motion” also takes a look at how “Star Trek” also played a role in opening up people’s minds to the idea that a diverse group of people could be in outer space.

The Irish horror flick “Sea Fever” (written and directed by Neasa Hardiman) is definitely influenced by the 1979 classic film “Alien,” since it’s about a group of people trapped on board with a parasitic creature that can multiply easily, infect humans, and then kill them. And the smartest one in the group is a scientific-minded woman, who’s the best chance that they have of survival. But instead of being a gun-toting warrior like Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” character Ripley, the heroine of “Sea Fever” is a marine-biology student Siobhán (played by Hermione Corfield), who’s the youngest person on an isolated ship that’s under attack by a mysterious sea creature. Even though the movie has some predictable tropes, what makes “Sea Fever” different from other horror films of this type is that Siobhán has to deal with ageism, as well as the expected sexism. For most of the story, the other people on board don’t take her seriously. And there are dire consequences when her warnings go unheeded. Gunpowder & Sky will release “Sea Fever” in U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced.

“Rocks,” a drama directed by Sarah Gavron, was the festival’s closing-night film. “The movie (written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson) is about a London teenager nicknamed Rocks (played by Bukky Bakray), who comes home to find her single mother missing, and she has to take care of her younger brother Emmanuel (played by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) by herself. With the help of her female friends, Rocks tries to hide her situation from child protective services, which would separate the siblings in foster care. Overall, the movie is good, although some people might have an issue with one aspect of the movie’s conclusion that ends up being vague and open to interpretation. (It has to do with a decision that Rocks makes about Emmanuel.) However, the movie’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the problems that Rocks encounters as an unexpected underage guardian of her brother.  Film4 will release “Rocks” in the U.K. and Ireland on April 24 , 2020. The movie’s U.S. release date is undetermined, as of this writing.

Other movies that had their New York City premieres at the festival included the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive”; the lesbian cop drama “The Long Shadow”; the Papua New Guinea women’s rugby documentary “Power Meri”; the British drama “Military Wives”; the Israeli political documentary “Objector”; the French coming-of-age drama “Stars by the Pound”; the Spanish lesbian drama “Carmen & Lola”; and the Italian female boxing documentary “Butterfly.”

The festival had some movies that were originally released in 2019 and have won prizes and Oscar nominations. They included the Syrian war documentary “For Sama” (co-directed by and starring Waad al-Kateab); Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated version of “Little Women,” based on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel; the Disney animated sequel “Frozen 2” (co-directed by Jennifer Lee); and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons.

There were also networking events (most were invitation-only), discussion panels and creative workshops.

The Athena Film Festival’s “The Silence Breakers” panel at Barnard College in New York City on February 29, 2020. Pictured from left to right: Sarah Anne Masse, Jasmine Lobe, Drew Dixon and Sheri Sher. (Photo Carla Hay)

The most-talked about panel, which also packed the room with about 250 people, was “The Silence Breakers,” featuring #MeToo accusers of disgraced entertainment moguls Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons. The panel, which took place on February 29, was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter executive film editor Tatiana Siegel, who has covered several #MeToo stories in the entertainment industry. The panelists shared their thoughts on the February 24 verdict that convicted Weinstein of a first-degree criminal sexual act and a third-degree count of rape. A New York City jury of seven men and five women delivered the verdict, which acquitted Weinstein of the most serious charges: two counts of predatory sexual assault and one count of first-degree rape.

The panelists shared their thoughts on the verdict. “I was really relieved. It felt like a weight I’d been carrying on my shoulders for 12 years had been lifted,” commented actress Sarah Ann Masse, who claims that Wejnstein sexually harassed her during a job interview in 2008. “I was expecting him to get away with it, like he had for decades.”

Jasmine Lobe, an writer/actress who says that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in 2006, had this to say about Weinstein being convicted of sex crimes: “There was a tremendous sense of victory. We were all preparing for the worst.” Weinstein continues to deny all sexual-misconduct allegations against him. He will receive his prison sentence on March 11, 2020.

Drew Dixon (a former A&R executive at Def Jam Records and Arista Records) and Sheri Sher (a founding member of the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies) each claim that they were raped by Simmons, who founded the companies Def Jam and Rush Communications. He stepped down from his businesses in 2017, after several women went public with similar allegations. Dixon says her assault happened in 1995, while Sher claims that Simmons sexually violated her in 1983. Simmons has denied all the accusations against him. As of this writing, he has not been arrested for any alleged sex crimes that still fall under the statute of limitations, but he’s being sued in California by an unnamed woman who claims he raped her in 1988.

“It is a game-changer, a watershed moment,” Dixon said of the Weinstein rape conviction. “Also, the fact that a majority-male jury understood the nuance of remaining in touch with your perpetrator.” Simmons accuser Sher added that since the resurgence of the #Me Too movement and now that Weinstein has been convicted of rape, there’s a “sense that it’s a new era. It’s time to change. It’s real.”

Dixon and Sher are among the Simmons accusers featured in the documentary “On the Record,” directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. The movie was publicly protested by Simmons and some of his supporters. Executive producer Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ then dropped out of the project. HBO Max then picked up the documentary, which will begin streaming on a date to be announced. Dixon mentioned that when black women accuse black men of abuse, the situation is more complicated because of the racial injustices that black men face in the legal system.

Meanwhile, the panelists said that although organizations such as Time’s Up have been helpful for many #MeToo survivors, a lot more progress needs to be made in order to change the culture where sexual harassers and predators can still thrive. The panelists advocate for laws that extend or suspend statutes of limitations for sex crimes. They also think there should be more policies that won’t allow non-disclosure agreements for settlements involving sexual misconduct.

Masse and Dixon also noted that more industry people in power who say they care about this issue need to practice what they preach and hire #MeToo silence breakers who’ve been victims of career retaliation. Because the #MeToo issue is not limited to the entertainment industry, Dixon commented that it’s everyone’s responsibility to do their part to stop the cycle of abuse: “If you see something, say something. You call it out. You don’t laugh it off.”

Harvey Weinstein convicted of sex crimes, including rape

February 24, 2020

by Colleen McGregor

Harvey Weinstein at The Weinstein Company’s Pre-Academy Awards Dinner sponsored by Grey Goose at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on February 25, 2017. (Photo by Hagop Kalaidjian/BFA)

On February 24, 2020, in a New York City courtroom, disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty on two of five possible counts involving two women: a first-degree criminal sexual act and a third-degree rape. He was found not guilty of the three most serious charges: two counts of predatory sexual assault and one count of first-degree rape involving two women (Miriam Haley and Jessica Mann) in separate incidents. The jury, consisting of seven men and five women, deliberated for nearly a week.

The trial began on January 6, 2020, after experiencing many delays. Weinstein, who is 67, did not testify at his trial. After the verdict was read, Weinstein was immediately taken to jail, where he will be held until his sentencing on March 11, 2020. He faces up to 29 years in prison.

Weinstein is also facing sexual-assault charges in Los Angeles, where he is accused of raping one woman and sexually assaulting another woman on two consecutive nights during Oscars week in 2013.

Weinstein was first arrested in May 2018,  when he turned himself into the New York Police Department. He was arrested and charged with rape and forced oral sex. According to the Associated Press, the rape charge was for an unidentified woman who claims that Weinstein raped her at a New York hotel room in 2013. The oral sex charge was for a 2004 incident in which former aspiring actress Lucia Evans claims that Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex on him at his New York office.

In October 2018, the charge involving Evans was dismissed. According to CNN, Evans’ attorney Carrie Goldberg implied that the charge was dropped for political reasons because of a “feud between the NYPD and the DA’s office.” Goldberg added that the dropped charge “does speak to a system desperate in need of reform.”

A few famous actresses testified against Weinstein in his New York trial: Annabella Sciorra (who says that Weinstein raped her in her apartment in 1993 and 1994) and Rosie Perez, who testified that Sciorra told her about being raped shortly after the incident. Perez found out much later that Sciorra’s alleged rapist was Weinstein, but Perez did not go to police because Sciorra swore her to secrecy at the time.

According to the Associated Press, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. made this statement after the verdict was revealed: “This is the new landscape for survivors of sexual assault in America, I believe, and it is a new day. It is a new day because Harvey Weinstein has finally been held accountable for crimes he committed. Weinstein is a vicious, serial sexual predator who used his power to threaten, rape, assault and trick, humiliate and silence his victims. Weinstein with his manipulation, his resources, his attorneys, his publicists and his spies did everything he could to silence to survivors.”

Weinstein’s attorneys said that they will appeal the verdict. His defense attorney Donna Rotunno commented after the verdict was revealed: “Harvey is unbelievably strong. He took it like a man. He knows that we will continue to fight for him, and we know that this is not over.”

Weinstein’s conviction and imprisonment for sex crimes are considered landmarks for the #MeToo movement, which became a major cultural force in October 2017, when the New York Times and the New Yorker reported that Weinstein has a long history of sexual misconduct allegations, going back as far as the 1980s. The reports detailed how he silenced many of his alleged victims with financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements. In the years since those reports were published, more than 100 women have come forward to claim that Weinstein sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. Weinstein has denied all the allegations, and says any sex acts he committed were consensual.

After the reports were published, Weinstein was fired by The Weinstein Company (the entertainment firm that Harvey co-founded with his brother Bob); Harvey’s second wife, Georgina Chapman, divorced him; and the company filed for bankruptcy. The Weinstein Company has since been purchased by investment group Lantern Entertainment.

In March 2019, Lantern and Gary Barber launched Spyglass Media Group, which will own the library previously owned by The Weinstein Company. Italian film distributor Eagle Pictures, cinema chain Cineworld (which own Regal Cinemas) and later AT&T’s Warner Bros. were brought in as minority holders. The library includes Oscar-winning movies “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Iron Lady,”  as well as partial ownership of the fashion reality TV competition “Project Runway.”

Several industry organizations (including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) have expelled Harvey Weinstein from their membership, and he has been sued by several women for sexual harassment/sexual misconduct. Ashley Judd, one of his accusers, is also suing him for defamation because she claims Harvey Weinstein damaged her reputation and career after she rejected his sexual advances.

Since the accusations about Weinstein were made public, there have been several books, news stories and documentaries about his scandals. The most notable feature-length documentary so far about Weinstein is Hulu’s “Untouchable,” which began streaming in September 2019. The entertainment industry website Deadline reported in 2018 that Plan B (Brad Pitt’s production company) and Annapurna Pictures are planning a dramatic feature film about how The New York Times broke the Weinstein #MeToo story. The movie, if it’s made, will likely begin filming after all of Weinstein’s criminal cases have been resolved.

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall is widely considered to be the turning point of the #MeToo cultural movement, which has survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault publicly telling their stories and seeking justice. The #MeToo movement has also led to sexual misconduct allegations against many other famous and powerful men, often resulting in the accused losing their jobs and/or being sued.

Review: ‘Miss Americana,’ starring Taylor Swift

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Taylor Swift in "Miss Americana"
Taylor Swift in “Miss Americana” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Miss Americana”

Directed by Lana Wilson

Culture Representation: This very filtered documentary about singer Taylor Swift takes an inside look at her life as a multimillionaire celebrity whose inner circle and career team are almost exclusively white, with a few African Americans who have brief appearances as employees or video collaborators.

Culture Clash: The movie gives Swift’s perspective on conflicts she’s had with her critics over her image, her feud with Kanye West, her love life, her 2017 sexual assault trial and her outspoken liberal views on politics.

Culture Audience: “Miss Americana” will obviously appeal mostly to fans of Swift, but the movie should also interest people who like behind-the-scene stories of entertainment celebrity culture.

Taylor Swift in “Miss Americana” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Miss Americana,” a completely sympathetic documentary about Grammy-winning superstar Taylor Swift, could have been subtitled “The Emancipation of Taylor Swift.” The main narrative of the film is that she’s all grown up now, and she’s no longer afraid to speak her mind and go public about her liberal political views. While she undoubtedly gets candid in the film about many issues she’s faced in her life, and it’s ultimately a feel-good portrayal of Swift, the documentary (directed by Lana Wilson) has a lot of glaring omissions. The biggest one is that it completely ignores the massive public feud that Swift has with music moguls Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun—a feud in which she’s publicly accused them of using their “toxic male privilege” (Swift’s words) to try to take away power from her and other artists.

What viewers of “Miss Americana” will get are several visual montages (on stage and off stage) of Swift’s career over the years, starting when she was an unknown 12-year-old singer/songwriter from Pennsylvania trying to break into country music, to being a Nashville-based, polished 15-year-old aspiring country star, to becoming one of the best-selling female music artists of all time. There’s the expected footage of her on stage, backstage, on the sets of her music videos, and in the recording studio, including showing some of the songwriting process for her 2019 album “Lover,” with cameos from songwriter/producer Jack Antonoff and Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie.

Swift has transitioned from being a country singer to a pop star. It’s a transformation that could have happened because her musical tastes have evolved, but she also admits in the documentary that any changes she makes to her image are mostly because female artists feel more pressure than male artists to constantly reinvent themselves to remain relevant.

The beginning of the film shows Swift (who’s famously a cat fanatic) playing the piano while her one of her Scottish Fold cats walks all over the piano. Swift then shares some of her childhood diaries, and comments: “My moral code, then and now, is to be good. The main thing I tried to be is a good girl. I was so fulfilled by approval, that was it. I became the person everyone wanted me to be.”

It’s a story that people have heard many times from people who were child stars: They’ve been so programmed to get approval from the public that they can lose their true identities and self-esteem in the celebrity machine. There are too many tragic stories of former child stars who’ve been unable to cope with growing up and becoming less popular as they get older. It’s an underlying fear that Swift admits that she has, because she’s constantly seeking approval from fans and she feels pressure to maintain a certain level of popularity. She’s also well-aware that there’s an age double-standard for female entertainers, who are more likely than male entertainers to be cast aside by the industry once they’re over the age of 35.

The documentary clearly shows that Swift (who turned 30 in December 2019) is very good at marketing herself, and it’s a skill that she learned early in her career. There’s a clip of her on stage in 2003, shortly after her country breakthrough single “Tim McGraw” was released, where she mentions the local country radio station and charmingly asks the audience to contact the station to play the song. The movie also makes a point of showing how Swift avoided going public for years about her political views after she became old enough to vote. Her standard response back then was that she was just a singer and people wanted to hear her sing and not tell them how they should feel about politics.

Swift’s songs are very autobiographical; she’s famous for writing songs about her love affairs and breakups. And because she’s dated a lot of famous men (mostly musicians and actors), her love life has already been thoroughly dissected by fans and the media. The documentary includes a montage of media coverage about her love life and how people’s perceptions of her have been affected by the media coverage.

British actor Joe Alwyn, whom she’s been dating since 2016, is briefly shown in the documentary, as he hugs Swift backstage after one of her concerts. Alywn is not shown speaking on camera, but there are some clips of candid off-stage cell-phone footage of Swift where it’s obvious that Alwyn is the one filming it, such as a clip where Swift is singing and then mouths the words “I love you” to the person filming. All that Swift will say about her romance with Alwyn is that she’s in love, and they both decided that they wanted to keep their relationship private. She doesn’t even say his name in the documentary.

What she does reveal in the documentary that hasn’t been made public before is that she’s had an eating disorder for years and is in recovery, but it’s still a struggle for her. She first mentions her eating disorder in the film when she says she no longer looks at photos of herself every day because it can “trigger” the feelings of insecurity that she has about her body. She then goes on to describe that for years, she thought it was normal to starve herself and feel the physical effects of extreme hunger. She now says that she has healthy eating habits and is comfortable if she’s “a size 6 instead of size 00,” but she says the relentless public scrutiny about her physical appearance can still deeply affect her.

Over the years, Swift has openly talked about how the person she is closest to is her mother, Andrea Swift, who is shown several times in the documentary as a constant companion to her daughter. That strong family support is clearly one of the main reasons why Swift has not become a casualty of fame. Andrea Swift’s cancer diagnosis (which Swift has talked about in other interviews, as well as in this documentary) is something that Swift says has had a profound effect on everyone in the family, and it’s why Swift places family and friends as the highest priorities in her life.

Much has already been said and written about the feud between Swift and Kanye West. In the documentary, Swift says that the notorious incident that started it all did long-lasting damage to her self-esteem. That incident was when West got up on stage and interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech after she won the prize for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and he shouted that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video (which was nominated in the same category) “was one of the best videos of all time.”

Although West was universally slammed for that stunt, and he later made several public apologies, Swift says that at the time she was on stage during the incident, she thought the audience booing was meant for her, not West. She says in the documentary that it was the first time she felt so much negativity from an audience while she was on stage, and it was a “formative experience” that took her down a “psychological path, not all of it beneficial.”

Swift is a celebrity who became famous right when social media became part of the culture, so she’s experienced the highs and lows of social media on a learning curve. On the one hand, Swift is one of the most popular celebrities on social media, with followers that total in the hundreds of millions. On the other hand, when she does something that’s considered controversial, that huge level of attention can turn quickly against her.

The documentary mentions the enormous backlash that she received when West’s wife Kim Kardashian released a secretly recorded video of Swift talking to West over the phone and giving West the go-ahead to mention her in his 2016 song “Famous,” which had not been released yet at the time the conversation happened. The song lyric that mentioned Swift turned out be very derogatory and called her a misogynistic name. After the song was released, Swift claimed that she didn’t know her name would be used in that way, while West and his camp said she did know in advance. That’s when Kardashian released the video.

The documentary makes a point of showing how Swift was virtually bullied by West’s fans, including viral footage of an audience at one of his concerts chanting a derogatory statement about Swift. But the documentary does not mention how some of Swift’s fans on the Internet can be just as vicious in showing hate for people who dare to criticize Swift. Several celebrities who have clashed with Swift have talked about how her most fanatical fans can be bullies. Her public feuds with other celebrities (such as Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber and ex-boyfriends Calvin Harris, John Mayer and Joe Jonas) are not mentioned in the documentary, probably because Swift is no longer feuding with them.

Whichever side you believe in the controversy over “Famous,” Swift reveals in the documentary that all the hate she received from “cancel culture” was the main reason why she took a year-long hiatus and came back to the spotlight with her 2017 album “Reputation.” There’s some footage of Swift writing songs that ended up on the album, as well as a scene that shows her disappointment when she gets a call from a handler informing her that the album didn’t get any Grammy nominations in the major categories. (Don’t feel too sorry for Swift. She’s already got several Grammys, including two Grammys for Album of the Year.)

The movie also covers the lawsuit that made Swift go public about being sexually groped by a radio DJ, who later sued her because he was fired over that incident. Swift countersued for $1, to prove that he did grope her without her consent, and she wasn’t going to let him get away with blaming her for the crime he committed. Her $1 counterclaim was her way of telling the world that this issue wasn’t about the money for her. Swift famously won the lawsuit and became an advocate of the #MeToo movement.

In the documentary, Swift makes it clear that her #MeToo experience was the biggest catalyst to her political awakening and her decision to no longer remain silent over the progressive political issues that she wants to publicly support. One of the best parts of the documentary is showing what happened behind the scenes when she made the major decision to give her first political endorsement.

Swift says she was constantly told for her entire career “not to be like the Dixie Chicks,” the female country trio that lost a lot of fans in the early 2000s, after the group spoke out against Republican politics and the war in Iraq. But Swift’s #MeToo experience and the subsequent lawsuits opened her eyes to social justice issues, and she decided for herself: “The next time there’s any opportunity to change anything, you’d better know what you stand for and what you want to say.”

Her decision to go public with her political views didn’t sit well with several members of her team, who told her that she would be making a big mistake. In the movie, the objectors are shown to be all middle-aged men (including her father), who tried to scare her by saying that they were concerned that she would get more death threats and would lose half of her audience if she came out as a political liberal. But Swift firmly did not back down, even though there was some expected fear of the unknown.

The movie shows her apprehension and excitement that she and publicist Tree Paine had together in the moments before she posted her endorsement of Phil Bredesen (a Democrat) over Marsha Blackburn (a Republican) in the 2018 race for Tennessee U.S. Senator. Not only did Swift endorse Bredesen, but she also publicly slammed Blackburn for voting against laws that support rights for the LGBTQ community and female victims of violence. Ultimately, Blackburn won the election, but Swift says she’s hopeful that in future elections, the younger generation will vote to sway politics in a more progressive and inclusive direction.

As Swift says in the movie: “I feel really good about not feeling muzzled anymore. And it was my own doing. I needed to learn a lot before I spoke to 200 million people. But I’ve educated myself now, and it’s time to take the masking tape off of my mouth forever.”

While Swift is obviously a positive inspiration in many ways, as this documentary makes very clear, there are still aspects of “Miss Americana” that aren’t entirely candid. One of the biggest criticisms of Swift is that she has a tendency to portray herself as a victim when things don’t go her way. No one is expecting her to be perfect, but there’s a limit to Swift being honest about her life for this documentary.

Although she admitted to having issues about eating and her body image, not once does she admit to doing anything mean-spirited or cutthroat in her life. There’s no mention of any friends or lovers she might have tossed aside, no remorse or regret about not treating a loved one better, no acknowledgement of less-than-wonderful things she’s done to rivals or former business associates. In reality, no one gets to her level of success by being nice to everyone. In the documentary, the only mistake she admits to making is not being politically outspoken in 2016 for the U.S. presidential election.

For a “behind the scenes” documentary about an artist who’s risen to the top the music industry, it’s very unrealistic for Swift to not acknowledge any experiences that she might have had with illegal drugs, alcohol, diet pills, prescription medication or even nicotine. If you were to believe everything that’s presented this movie, those things just don’t exist in Swift’s world. The worst “vice” that Swift shows on camera is uttering a few curse words. The documentary might look “revealing” to many people who don’t know what really goes on behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, but for those who do know what really goes on, it’s very obvious that “Miss Americana” is very white-washed indeed.

The narrative here is that bad things keep happening to Swift (stalkers, intrusive paparazzi, tabloid media, haters on the Internet), and she always finds a way to triumph and overcome it all. That is, except for the battle that she lost against Borchetta and Braun, which is not mentioned at all in this documentary. It’s obvious that Swift and/or the documentary’s filmmakers didn’t want to put anything in the movie that would weaken Swift’s “female empowerment” image that she wants to have.

In July 2019, Swift went on the Internet to post a lengthy rant accusing Borchetta (the founder of Big Machine Records, her former record company) of unscrupulously taking her pre-2019 song catalogue and selling it to music manager Braun, whom Swift considers an enemy because Braun was West’s manager during the worst of Swift’s feud with West. Swift claims that she and her management/publishing team (which includes her father, Scott Swift) weren’t given a fair opportunity to buy these master recordings of her songs. Borchetta vehemently denies the accusation, and says that Swift had a chance to buy the songs but she didn’t agree to the deal that was presented. The “he said/she said” fight blew up to such an extent that many celebrities jumped into the fray by either taking Swift’s side or the Borchetta/Braun side.

For all of Swift’s preaching about female empowerment in this documentary, it’s odd that she and this movie’s director have cut out this chapter of her life that Swift has tried to present as part of her fight against male sexism. She used the feud as a platform to speak out about not only male sexism but also artists’ rights and what kinds of contracts artists sign that could have long-lasting effects on their careers.

Swift has presented herself as an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights before (her push to get Spotify to pay reasonable artist royalties is one example—something that’s also not mentioned in the movie), so it’s a major setback in her life and her career that one of her enemies now owns the vast majority of her songs. The fact that this life-changing experience wasn’t even acknowledged in the documentary indicates how much of a public-relations showcase “Miss Americana” is instead of a complete behind-the-scenes look at her life.

The documentary seems to want people to forget that Swift’s feud with Borchetta/Braun ever happened, even though she was the one who took the feud public in the first place and ended up getting a lot of backlash from people who think she misrepresented herself as a victim in this situation. Rather than being fully honest and sharing what she learned from this undoubtedly painful experience, Swift probably told the filmmakers directly or indirectly not to put it in the movie. Let’s be real: Even though she’s not listed as a producer of “Miss Americana,” she obviously had a lot of creative control over this documentary, based on what they chose to show and what they chose not to show.

Also absent from the documentary is any mention of Swift’s attempts to become a movie actress, which have resulted in her appearing in flops such as 2014’s “The Giver” and 2019’s “Cats.” Anything that makes Swift look like a failure or someone who made a really bad career decision is essentially shut out of the documentary. Instead, “Miss Americana” ends with Swift winning Video of the Year at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards for “You Need to Calm Down,” her platform to show her as an ally to the LGBTQ community. The award show took place on August 26, 2019—several weeks after she started feuding with Borchetta and Braun, so there was plenty of time to include the feud in the movie.

Another thing the documentary makes clear is that even though Swift talks a lot about female empowerment, her team is led by men, while women are mostly relegated to traditionally female roles, such as publicist, backup dancer, makeup artist and hair stylist. There are several scenes in the movie where Swift is the only woman in the recording studio. Why not hire more female musicians, producers and engineers? Swift has the power to do that, so there’s really no excuse.

Beyoncé has an all-female touring band of musicians (and so did Prince), so there are artists who are actually doing something about breaking barriers for women in the music industry. It remains to be seen if Swift will take a lot of her talk about female empowerment in the music industry and actually be an agent for change. If she ever wins Album of the Year at the Grammys again, we’ll see if she’s surrounded by a diverse group of people on stage who would share the award with her, instead of the same men who constantly get preferential treatment in the music industry.

For now, “Miss Americana” shows that Swift wants to spread a progressive political agenda and she wants to be praised as a symbol for female empowerment. But if she really wants to empower more women in the industry, she can start with the people she hires to make music with her and who she puts in charge of her business interests, instead of blaming other people for being the problem.

Netflix premiered “Miss Americana” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

Recording Academy fires president/CEO Deborah Dugan; she files EEOC complaint alleging rape and wrongful termination

January 21, 2020

by Colleen McGregor

The Recording Academy’s ouster of its first female president/CEO, Deborah Dugan (after she was on the job for only five months), has resulted in Dugan filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint with some bombshell allegations, including accusations that top-ranking officials engaged in sexual abuse/harassment and corruption. The Recording Academy (the organization behind the Grammy Awards) announced Dugan’s “administrative leave” ouster on January 16, 2019, and her complaint was filed on January 21, 2020. In the complaint, Dugan alleges that she heard from a Recording Academy employee that Neil Portnow, who was the Recording Academy’s president/CEO from 2002 to 2019, raped an unnamed female artist after the artist performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The artist is only described as a Recording Academy member who’s not from the United States. The year this alleged incident occurred was not included in the complaint.

The complaint also alleges that several unnamed people in the Recording Academy knew that Portnow engaged in sexual misconduct with other women, who are also unnamed. Dugan further claims that Recording Academy executive attorney Neil Fox sexually harassed Dugan by trying to forcibly kiss her and repeatedly calling her “baby.” Dugan’s other allegations are that the Recording Academy engages in corruption in the Grammy voting process and that certain board members overspend and abuse the Recording Academy’s funding.

According to the complaint, the alleged rape was the real reason why the Recording Academy announced in May 2018 that Portnow would be stepping down from the position. After the Grammy Awards in January 2018, Portnow received extensive criticism for saying in a post-Grammys press conference that female artists and producers needed to “step up” if they wanted to be nominated for and win more Grammys. The overwhelming majority of nominees and winners at the 2018 Grammys were men, as are the majority of the Recording Academy’s voting members. Portnow later made a public apology for the “step up” comment, and the Recording Academy formed the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, consisting primarily of women and people of color. Prior to Portnow announcing his resignation, Portnow was accused of mishandling Recording Academy funds for the 2018 MusiCares event. He denied the allegations.

After a year-long search for Portnow’s successor, Dugan was appointed to the Recording Academy’s CEO position, and her official start date was August 1, 2019. According to Showbiz 411, Portnow’s former executive assistant Claudine Little was preparing to file a lawsuit against Duggan for creating an abusive work environment. Unnamed sources also told Showbiz 411 that Dugan’s management style was arrogant, dismissive and not well-received by longtime staffers and board members. Meanwhile, other unnamed sources told Variety that Dugan was forced out by a coup from Recording Academy board members who feared they would lose their positions and perks after Dugan did an audit of the Recording Academy’s finances and was planning to make sweeping changes.

Until a permanent replacement has been announced, Recording Academy board chair Harvey Mason Jr. has been appointed interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy. On January 20, 2020, Mason issued a statement to the Recording Academy’s membership. In the statement, Mason revealed that in November 2019, allegations began that Dugan was creating a hostile and toxic work environment. According to Mason’s statement, the Recording Academy launched two separate, independent investigations, and Dugan “was placed on administrative leave as we complete both of these ongoing investigations.”

Meanwhile, Public Enemy co-founder Chuck D posted an open letter on his Instagram account, in which he expressed support for Dugan. Chuck D commented in the statement: “I salute Deborah Dugan for her truth and courage to try and effect change. As always, a bunch of ignorant, testosterone-fueled, usually old white men stop progress.”

Dugan, a former Wall Street attorney, has held executive positions in various areas of the entertainment industry, including executive VP of EMI Record Group; president of Disney Publishing Worldwide; and president/CEO of the British broadcaster Entertainment Rights. Prior to joining the Recording Academy, Dugan was CEO of (RED), the nonprofit co-founded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and attorney/activist Bobby Shriver. Dugan also served as senior adviser to the Tribeca Enterprises Board and headed legal services for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Her attorneys Doug Wigdor and Michael Willeman issued this statement on January 21, 2020: “The complaint that we filed today against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammys) highlights tactics reminiscent of those deployed by individuals defending Harvey Weinstein.  As we allege, the attempt by the Recording Academy to impugn the character of Deborah Dugan is a transparent effort to shift the focus away from its own unlawful activity. This blatant form of retaliation in corporate America is all too common, even post #MeToo, and we will utilize all lawful means necessary to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.”

The statement continues, “As alleged, from the very beginning of her employment as the Recording Academy’s first female CEO and President, Ms. Dugan complained about and attempted to remedy the lack of diversity, sexual harassment and other improprieties at the Academy (which were gender based), including egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members, voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards and other misconduct. In response to her complaints, as alleged, the Academy unlawfully retaliated against Ms. Dugan by placing her on administrative leave (only after she indicated her intent to commence legal action and refused to settle her claims on terms dictated by the Academy), threatening Ms. Dugan with termination and publishing false and defamatory statements about Ms. Dugan to the media.  Moreover, as of just yesterday, as alleged, the Academy’s interim CEO and President, Harvey Mason Jr., penned and published a false, retaliatory and defamatory letter designed to ‘get out in front’ of this Charge and further destroy Ms. Dugan’s reputation.”

During all of this controversy, the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony is set to take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 26, 2020. CBS will have the U.S. telecast of the show, which will be hosted by Alicia Keys for the second year in a row. It will be the last Grammy Awards executive produced by Ken Ehrlich, who served as executive producer of the Grammys for the past 40 years. Ehrlich, who will still work in television, will be replaced as Grammy Awards show executive producer by Ben Winston, who also executive produces the CBS talk show “The Late, Late Show With James Corden.” Corden hosted the Grammy Awards in 2017 and 2018.

UPDATE: Portnow and Fox have publicly denied all the allegations made against them in Dugan’s complaint.

Placido Domingo scandal: concerts canceled after accusations of sexual harassment

August 13, 2019

by Colleen McGregor

Placido Domingo (Photo by Elekes Andor)

Placido Domingo, one of the most famous opera singers of all time, has joined the growing list of people getting career backlash after being accused of sexual misconduct. On August 13, 2019, the Associated Press (AP) published a news report with several female (mostly anonymous) accusers saying that Domingo (who is 78) sexually harassed them years ago with unwanted sexual advances, under the guise of helping them with their careers. After the report was published, some of Domingo’s concerts were canceled. The report claims that Domingo’s misconduct goes back several decades, and he allegedly had a pattern of targeting young women, especially those who worked in opera, at the beginning of their careers.

Domingo issued this statement to AP: “The allegations from these unnamed individuals dating back as many as 30 years are deeply troubling, and as presented, inaccurate. However, I recognize that the rules and standards by which we are—and should be—measured against today are very different than they were in the past. I am blessed and privileged to have had a more than 50-year career in opera and will hold myself to the highest standards.”

Nine women interviewed for the article said that Domingo kissed them on the mouth or touched them sexually without their consent, and he allegedly pressured them constantly to go out to dinner with him or be alone with him. Those who refused his advances say that they believe Domingo used his influence to damage their careers. An additional six women told AP that Domingo made them uncomfortable with his repeated, unwanted “touchy feely” actions, while nearly 36 people interviewed for the article said they personally witnessed Domingo’s inappropriate behavior with women. Most of the sources describe Domingo’s alleged sexual misconduct as an open secret, and women (especially young women) were warned not to be alone with him.

According to the Associated Press, after this news report was published, the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera canceled Domingo’s upcoming performances. The Los Angeles Opera announced that it has opened an investigation to look into allegations against Domingo. New York’s Metropolitan Opera told AP that it would await the results of LA Opera’s investigation before deciding if Domingo’s New York Metropolitan Opera performances would be canceled.

Victoria’s Secret blasted by models, who sign open letter demanding protection from sexual misconduct in workplace

August 7, 2019

by Daphne Sorenson

Victoria’s Secret models backstage at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. (Photo by Heidi Gutman/ABC)

More than 100 models and several of their allies (including Models Alliance and Times Up) have signed an open letter to Victoria’s Secret CEO John Mehas to demand an end to the sexual abuse and sexual harassment that has allegedly been running rampant against Victoria’s Secret models.

The letter reads, in part: “In the past few weeks, we have heard numerous allegations of sexual assault, alleged rape, and sex trafficking of models and aspiring models. While these allegations may not have been aimed at Victoria’s Secret directly, it is clear that your company has a crucial role to play in remedying the situation.  From the headlines about L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner’s close friend and associate, Jeffrey Epstein, to the allegations of sexual misconduct by photographers Timur Emek, David Bellemere, and Greg Kadel, it is deeply disturbing that these men appear to have leveraged their working relationships with Victoria’s Secret to lure and abuse vulnerable girls.”

Most of the models who signed the open letter are not very well-known in the industry or are well-known models who are over the age of 30, such as Milla Jovovich, Emme, Doutzen Kroes, and Carolyn Murphy. Noticeably absent from the letter are supermodels who’ve been steadily employed by Victoria’s Secret in recent years, such as Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Behati Prinsloo, Jasmine Tookes, Barbara Palvin and Taylor Hill. Adriana Lima, who retired from Victoria’s Secret runway shows in 2018, was also not on the list of people who signed the letter.

L Brands (based in Columbus, Ohio) is the parent company of Victoria’s Secret.  The letter was published just two days after L Brands chief marketing officer Ed Razek publicly announced he was leaving the company. Wexner and Razek had close ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested again in July 2019, for sex crimes, specifically, for sex trafficking of women and underage girls.

Razek came under fire in 2018, when he said in a Vogue interview that Victoria’s Secret was not interested in hiring plus-sized or transgender models. In August 2019, Victoria’s Secret hired its first transgender model: Valentina Sampaio, who posted the news on her Instagram account.

The open letter blasting Victoria’s Secret is the latest blow to the company, which officially canceled the 2019 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show only a few months after it was announced that the show would not be televised anymore. Victoria’s Secret and its Pink spinoff brand have also been experiencing a sharp decline in sales in recent years.

August 10, 2019 UPDATE: Convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City on August 10, 2019. According to the Associated Press, he died in the morning of an apparent suicide by hanging. The Associated Press also reports that although Epstein, who was 66, had been on suicide watch in the weeks leading up to his death, he was not on suicide watch at the time he was found dead. He had been denied bail while waiting to be put on trial on charges of sex-trafficking of underage girls. Of course, Epstein’s sudden death has fueled conspiracy theories that he might have been murdered to prevent him from exposing who his rich and powerful clients were in the sex crimes that Epstein was accused of committing.