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.

 

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.

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: ‘Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,’ starring Clarence Thomas and Virginia Thomas

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Clarence Thomas in "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words"
Clarence Thomas in “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” (Photo courtesy of Manifold Productions)

“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words”

Directed by Michael Pack

Culture Representation: This documentary only interviews U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, who are upper-class religious conservatives.

Culture Clash: In the movie, Clarence Thomas tells his life story, including conflicts he’s had over politics, race and his biggest scandal: allegations from Anita Hill (a law professor and former co-worker) that he repeatedly sexually harassed her.

Culture Audience: “Created Equal” will appeal primarily to conservatives and admirers of Clarence Thomas, but people of any or no political persuasion might be curious to see the movie because it’s a rare video interview of Thomas as a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas and Clarence Thomas at their 1987 wedding. (Photo courtesy of Justice Thomas)

Regardless of what people might think of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, he’s certainly led a life of extremes. Born in 1948 as the middle child of a single mother who was a maid (his father left the family when he was just 2 years old), he’s gone from growing up poor in segregated Pin Point, Georgia, to becoming a wealthy member of society’s elite as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He’s gone from being a radical left-wing Democrat who shared the same views as Black Panthers to becoming a Libertarian and then a conservative Republican. He’s gone from being the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to being someone whose reputation will be forever tainted by allegations from women (most notably, Anita Hill) that he sexually harassed them. Thomas denies all of these allegations.

What does Thomas think about his life and how he’s dealt with his biggest challenges? He thinks he’s a misunderstood survivor who’s been able to withstand the constant criticism and prejudices he’s faced his entire life. From an early age, his own mother described him as “stubborn.” For better or worse, he says that stubborn personality trait has both hurt and helped him through his toughest obstacles.

This narrowly focused biographical documentary (directed, written and produced by Michael Pack) interviews only two people: Clarence Thomas and his second wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having the couple as the only people interviewed in the film, but if the filmmakers wanted to stay true to the subtitle of the documentary (“Clarence Thomas in His Own Words”), it would have been a better choice to only interview Clarence Thomas and stick to that concept. Ginni Thomas (who is an advocate/fundraiser for politically conservative groups) is clearly an adoring and devoted wife, but her unwavering support of her husband is expected and doesn’t add anything new or particularly insightful to this profile of Justice Thomas.

By having a spouse interviewed for this film, it looks more like a family home movie, and it opens up other questions: If someone other than the documentary subject is going to be interviewed, why not just interview more people who know Clarence Thomas too? Having several interviews with various people would have been a more conventional way to make the documentary, but if the filmmakers wanted to take the more unconventional approach of it being a movie about Clarence Thomas reflecting on his life “in his own words,” it would have been more consistent with this first-person-viewpoint premise to just let only Justice Thomas take the proverbial podium.

Fortunately, the filmmakers took a responsible approach by including the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Clarence Thomas’ life. Some people might assume before seeing this documentary that it’s a very one-sided film, but the criticism and scandals that Clarence Thomas have faced over the years are not ignored and actually get more screen time than a lot of people might expect. Even if the documentary doesn’t have new interviews with Clarence Thomas supporters (except for his wife) or detractors, other perspectives are shown though archival news footage and other media coverage. Many of the editorials that blast Thomas for being a “race traitor,” “Uncle Tom” and accused “sexual harasser” are included in the film. Footage of protests and speeches against him are also part of the documentary.

The interviews with Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas are done in close-up, in a stark room that could pass for a TV studio. Documentary filmmaker Pack (who doesn’t appear on camera) is sometimes heard asking the questions. Clarence Thomas’ demeanor ranges from calm and almost detached when he describes much of his youth to emotionally agitated when he talks about attacks he says he’s endured from his critics and enemies.

He previously opened up extensively about his life in his 2007 book, “My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir.” Therefore, much of that information is repeated in this documentary. The film also includes excerpts from the audio book. One of the best qualities of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” is its skillful editing of archival footage to put into context a lot of what is being said on screen.

The first half of the movie covers Clarence Thomas’ life before he was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court. A crucial turning point in his childhood was when he and his younger brother were sent to his mother’s parents: Myers Anderson (whom Clarence Thomas describes as “stern”) and Christine Anderson (whom he describes as “sweet as can be”).

Myers Anderson would end up being the most influential adult in Clarence Thomas’ life, and it’s clear that it was his approval that Clarence Thomas wanted the most. Myers Anderson was a farmer who dropped out of elementary school and could barely read and write, but he instilled in Clarence the importance of education, hard work and discipline. Clarence Thomas was educated at Catholic schools, which led to his enrollment as the only black student at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Missouri. In 1968, he left Conception Seminary College after becoming disillusioned with the Catholic Church for refusing to be pro-actively involved in the civil-rights movement and after hearing a racist remark from a seminary priest who allegedly said that Martin Luther King Jr. deserved to be assassinated.

Clarence Thomas’ grandfather Myers was so upset that Clarence quit college that he kicked Clarence out of the house, and they were estranged for many years, even after he enrolled as a student at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Clarence Thomas then became a left-wing Democrat in his late teens and early 20s. Although he’s a Catholic, Thomas says in the documentary that race issues became his primary religion at that time in his life. He met his first wife, Kathy Ambush (a fellow student) while at Holy Cross, and they married the day after his graduation in 1971.

While enrolled in Yale Law School, he became a “lazy Libertarian,” as he says in the documentary. And after the birth of his first and only child, Jamal, his political views began to sway more to the right when he saw the effects of forced integration through busing of black students to predominately white schools, and white students being bused to predominantly black schools.

Clarence Thomas says the violence and other disastrous effects of the forced school busing convinced him that it was an ineffectual way to achieve racial equality. As he says in the documentary: “Nobody was going to have some social experiment and throw my son in there.” Even though Clarence Thomas would eventually mend his relationship with his grandfather Myers, he says in the documentary that it still hurts him deeply that his grandfather and other family members did not attend his graduation from Yale.

If Myers Anderson was the most influential person in Clarence Thomas’ life, then John “Jack” Danforth (a former U.S. senator and attorney general for Missouri) was the most influential person in Clarence Thomas’ career. Thomas says that after he graduated from Yale, it was difficult for him to get a job—and he makes it clear that it was probably because of racism. As Thomas tells it, Danforth was the first and only person at the time who offered him a job: as an assistant district attorney. Thomas was reluctant to take the offer since Danforth was a Republican, and Thomas didn’t like Republicans at that time. But he ended up taking the job, which opened up new opportunities for him, including becoming chairman of the EEOC, a position he held from 1982 to 1990.

In 1981, Clarence Thomas and first wife Kathy separated, and they divorced in 1984. In the documentary, he is abrupt and vague when asked why his first marriage fell apart. He says that “things just didn’t work.” And when the interviewer comments that the divorce must’ve been hard on everyone, Clarence Thomas also comments in a dismissive tone when describing his feelings at the time: “Yeah, well you live with it.”

As reluctant as he is to talk about his first marriage, he practically gushes when talking about his marriage to Republican lobbyist Virginia “Ginni” Lamp, whom he calls “a gift from God.” They met at a political conference and got married in 1987. Ginni’s political influence and connections no doubt affected her husband’s life because by 1989, Clarence Thomas was a federal judge appointed by President George Bush Sr.

Becoming a federal judge was not something that Thomas says he really wanted, but he was convinced to take the position by Bush and other Republican power players. Clarence Thomas’ career trajectory, by his own admission, follows a certain pattern: He showed initial reluctance to take an opportunity given to him by a Republican, starting with his first post-law-school job with Danforth (who became his unofficial mentor) and then continuing to President George Bush Sr. appointing him as a federal judge and then nominating him as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Thomas already talked about it in his memoir, but he reiterates in the documentary that he really had no ambitions to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and he was surprised that Bush nominated him.

It’s clear that Thomas’ acceptance by Republicans who had a positive affect on his life and career are eventually what changed his outlook toward the Republican Party. He no longer considered Republicans his enemy; he considered a lot of Republicans to be his allies and friends. It’s quite an about-face from the former hardcore left-wing Democrat. To understand why Thomas is the way he is now, he gives some insight when he says in the documentary that he’d rather deal with people who are open about being bigots, compared to liberals who claim to be open-minded but are really hypocrites who also practice selective discrimination.

The second half of the movie (the part that many people would consider the most newsworthy) covers the controversial 1991 U.S. Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Anita Hill’s allegations and what life has been like for Thomas since then. “The attacks started immediately,” Thomas says in the documentary, as his demeanor and voice change from calm to fired-up.

He also doesn’t mince words over why he thinks so many people opposed his confirmation as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He claims that the Senate hearings were a witch hunt against him by Democrats who tried to trap him into publicly voicing his opinion on abortion. And he believes that his opponents have this opinion of him: “This is the wrong black guy.”

Throughout much of the film, Clarence Thomas states that because he’s a conservative, he doesn’t fit the mold of what people think black men should be—and that makes people uncomfortable. But, as he points out, the idea that black people and other people of color should automatically be politically liberal is in itself a racist stereotype. He’s also unequivocal in stating that he thinks many liberals (especially those in the media) are hypocritical when it comes to free speech, since conservative viewpoints are frequently excluded and discriminated against.

As for Hill’s allegations, Clarence Thomas still denies them all. He and Ginni show a lot of anger and indignation in describing how the allegations nearly destroyed his life, but they also express gratitude to the people who supported them throughout the controversy. The hearings, presided over by then-Delaware U.S. Senator Joe Biden, included salacious accusations that while Clarence Thomas was Hill’s supervisor at the EEOC in the early ’80s, he persistently asked her out on dates, which she says she refused. Hill also said that Thomas commented to her on the size of women’s breasts, and he described to her in explicit detail the pornography that he liked to watch.

Regardless of which side people were on, the hearings undoubtedly made sexual harassment an issue that got more news coverage than it had ever gotten before, long before the #MeToo movement ever existed. The controversy also sparked debates over how an accuser should be judged for when and how the accuser comes forward with the allegations. Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court was approved by a U.S. Senate vote of 52 to 48.

Clarence Thomas, who says he never watched Hill’s testimony, comments in the documentary that the FBI told him that Hill’s allegations were uncorroborated. However, in all factual fairness, Hill did have several witnesses testify that she told them about the alleged harassment at the time the harassment allegedly happened. Clarence Thomas does not comment on these witnesses’ sworn testimonies in this documentary, and it’s unknown if the filmmakers asked him to comment on those testimonies and reports that there were other female accusers who came forward but were not called to testify. Likewise, Ginni Thomas does not comment in the documentary about the voice mail she left for Anita Hill in 2010, when she called Hill’s office at Brandeis University and asked her when she was going to make an apology for lying about the harassment.

That voice mail message serves as the opening for the 2014 documentary “Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power” (directed by Freida Lee Mock), which chronicled the sexual harassment controversy and Hill’s current life as a public speaker and advocate for human rights. That documentary was also very sympathetic to its subject, since almost everyone who was interviewed is a supporter of Hill.

Why is Clarence Thomas doing an authorized documentary about himself now? One can only speculate, but the timing is interesting. History seemed to repeat itself in 2018 with the politically divisive confirmation of Brett Kavanagh (a conservative Republican) as a U.S Supreme Court Justice. Kavanaugh also faced accusations of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place several years before and were made public shortly after he had been nominated for the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate in a 50 to 48 vote. And no, Clarence Thomas does not comment on Kavanaugh in this documentary. That’s not a surprise, because it would be rude and unprofessional for Thomas to publicly comment on fellow U.S. Supreme Court Justices when they currently working together.

Thomas’ participation in this documentary will inevitably be compared to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to participate in the 2018 hit documentary “RBG” (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West), which received several awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. “RBG” had unprecedented access to Ginsburg, including showing her doing her physical workout routines and spending time with her family. “RBG” also devoted a lot of time to Ginsburg’s legacy in the legal profession, by giving history lessons about many landmark court decisions that resulted from her work.

“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” doesn’t go into any real depth over about his decisions while serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, but  he does address why he’s known for not asking a lot of questions when cases are argued before the Supreme Court. He explains that oral and written arguments should have all the information he needs to make a decision. The documentary also points out that he has written more opinions on cases than any of the current U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

It isn’t until the near the end of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” that the documentary breaks from the one-on-one interview format and shows new footage of Thomas outside of the interview room. In one scene, he’s talking with and joking around with some of his clerks, and it shows a more light-hearted, humorous side to him. Ginni comments in an interview that her husband is not an Ivy League snob, since he goes out of his way to hire clerks who aren’t from the Ivy League.

At the end of the film, Clarence Thomas also mentions that he and Ginni love to travel by RV around the United States, to under-the-radar places where they can connect with everyday people. (There are brief photo flashes of the couple on these trips.) That’s the kind of documentary video footage a lot of people might want to see, but Clarence and Ginni Thomas seem to be too private for that kind of filmmaking.

“Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” probably won’t change a lot of people’s minds about Clarence Thomas if they are vehemently for or against him. But for people who can be more objective and want to look at both sides of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy, this documentary can be viewed in addition to “Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power” to get these different perspectives, so people can make up their own minds.

Manifold Productions released “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” in select U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.

Review: ‘The Assistant,’ starring Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen

January 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant”

Directed by Kitty Green

Culture Representation: Most of the characters with speaking roles are middle-to-upper-class white Americans in a male-dominated, competitive office environment, although some Asians are briefly represented as visiting Japanese businessmen. 

Culture Clash: An obvious battle of the sexes, “The Assistant” portrays men as mostly explicitly or implicitly sexist against the female protagonist.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to those who like arthouse think pieces that have a lot of low-key “slice of life” moments instead of big, dramatic scenes.

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant” writer/director Kitty Green, a filmmaker from Australia, says that the Harvey Weinstein scandal inspired her to do this fictional dramatic film, and she conducted dozens of interviews with women who survived work-related abuse and harassment. But before people watch the movie, they should know that it’s not a big showdown about a crusader getting justice. Rather, “The Assistant” is more of a character study of why sexual harassment/abuse is enabled in the workplace.

If you prefer your entertainment to be like a suspenseful Lifetime movie or a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode, then “The Assistant” might not be your cup of tea. But if you want the subject matter of workplace abuse and sexism to be tackled in a more realistic manner on screen, then you’ll appreciate that Green took a more subtle and less predictable approach to telling this story. Green previously directed the documentaries “Casting JonBenet” and “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” so she has a penchant for doing female-centric movies that explore society’s gender roles and how they influence power dynamics and exploitation.

In partnership with the New York Women’s Foundation, 10% of profits from “The Assistant” will go to support NYWF’s grantmaking to “women-led, community-based organizations that promote the economic security, safety and health of women and families in New York City, where the film was made,” according to the film’s production notes. (Click here for more information.)

At the heart of the story is Jane (played by the always-talented Julia Garner), a recent graduate of Northwestern University, who lives by herself in an apartment in the middle-class New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Green says she chose the name Jane for this character as a metaphor for all the Jane Does who experience what this character experiences in the movie.

Jane is a hard-working, soft-spoken employee at an unnamed successful movie/TV company, where she’s on the lowest end of the administrative assistant hierarchy. She gets up at the crack of dawn to be the first person in the office, which strongly resembles The Weinstein Company’s former headquarters in New York City’s TriBeCa area. It’s a large enough company to have locations in other cities, such as Los Angeles and London, but it’s not a massive conglomerate that can afford to be in a super-modern and pricey office building. The office vibe is corporate, with lots of men in business suits going in and out of the building, but just enough of a downtown Manhattan aura to remind people that it’s an entertainment company in a trendy part of the city.

For the first 20 minutes of the film, a mostly silent Jane does mundane office work, such as making coffee, filing papers, and booking travel arrangements. But there are enough signs to show that she is lonely and isolated in the big city. The only people outside of work she communicates with are her supportive parents via phone. It’s clear from Jane’s conversations that she spends many late nights and weekends at the office, and she has no social life because of her workaholic ways. She’s an aspiring film producer, so it’s easy to see why she want this job and is desperate to please her boss.

In the very male-dominated office, she’s treated like an expendable underling. She’s so low on the totem pole that she even has to order lunch for the two male administrative assistants who work at the desks near her. Jane has been at the company for about five weeks, so the male assistants (who are not named in the movie) constantly remind Jane in micro-aggressive ways that they have more seniority and power than she does. One of them (played by Noah Robbins) repeatedly throws a wad of paper at Jane to get her attention. The other male assistant (played by Jon Orisini) has a tendency to look over Jane’s shoulder when she’s working on the computer, as if he’s entitled to know what she’s doing and is ready to jump in and correct any mistake that he’s certain that she’ll make.

One of the few female employees seen in the office is a middle-aged cynic who is not only complicit in covering up for the predatory boss, but she also openly expresses contempt for some of the pretty young women (wannabe actresses or wannabe industry people) who have appointments to see the boss, in the hopes that he’ll give them their big breaks. After one of these eager hopefuls (whose name is Ruby, played by Makenzie Leigh) is ushered into the boss’s office for an “audition,” the female co-worker sneers to Jane that the woman is a “waste of time.”

Going against what might be expected in movies about sexual harassment in the workplace, Green (who’s a producer and co-editor of “The Assistant”) never actually shows explicit sexual abuse in the movie, nor does she ever show the boss on screen, and viewers never find out what his name is. The biggest indication that the viewers get in how the boss operates is seeing that he has several attractive young women who have private meetings alone with him in his office or in a local hotel. (Jane has the task of booking the hotel suites that he uses.)

She also notices when doing some accounting work that some signed checks that she’s responsible for recording have large amounts but no payee name on the checks. When she asks an unidentified male over the phone if her boss knows what the checks are for, she’s told in a tone of voice that yes, the boss does know, and Jane better not ask any more questions about it.

As for this mysterious and malevolent boss, viewers can hear him being verbally abusive over the phone to Jane in insulting rants that are muffled just enough that the movie never lets you hear his voice clearly, as if to say, “This could be your boss or the boss of someone you know.” Jane feels pressured to write suck-up apology emails to the boss every time he yells at her (and her nosy male colleagues even dictate what she should say in the email), which adds to Jane’s humilation. The boss also shows his manipulative side when, after one of his abusive tirades, he sends Jane an email that says, “You’re very good. I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great.”

In one disturbing scene, the two rotten assistants who work next to Jane listen in by phone on what’s happening in the boss’s office during one of his “private meetings” with a woman, and they laugh like two drunken frat boys at the faint sounds of sexual moaning that they know Jane can probably hear. (Based on her facial expression, she does hear what’s going on, but she’s too shocked to say anything.) The implication is clear: Someone in that office deliberately let these guys listen in by phone, because they knew they’d get a kick out of it.

The signs of sexual harassment and degradation are there, and Jane (who’s no idiot) figures out what’s going on, and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with it. The viewers of this movie see the signs too: Jane cleans up stains in her boss’ office before the other employees get there—even though the company has cleaning employees, Jane says she’s been told to personally clean the boss’s office. Jane opens a mailed box of prescription bottles filled with erection-aid medication and places the bottles in the boss’ office medicine cabinet—something that Weinstein reportedly had his assistants do in real life. Jane returns a lost earring to a distraught woman who goes back to the office, after losing the earring during a private meeting with the boss. The fear and dread in the woman’s eyes are unmistakable—she’s reluctantly returned to the scene of a crime where she was a victim.

And in case viewers aren’t sure if the boss uses a “casting couch” for his interviews with women, there’s a scene that spells it out very clearly. A group of businessmen are gathered in the boss’ office for a meeting, and while they’re waiting for the boss to arrive, one of the men laughs as he warns one of the visiting businessman who’s about to sit on a couch, “I wouldn’t sit there if I were you.”

There are also signs that the predatory boss is out of control, because he misses appointments, and Jane often has to lie to people who are looking for him. It’s because he has a habit of mysteriously disappearing from the office at the same time as the latest nubile young woman who showed up to visit him.  Jane is often left to deal with the wrath of the boss’ wife, who gets furious when Jane can’t tell her where her husband is. In another scene, Jane frantically enlists the help of an executive when her boss skips a business meeting and doesn’t telling anyone where he’s gone.

There’s also a major hint that this toxic boss has a drug problem, because one of Jane’s job duties is to go through her boss’s trash can and dispose of the used hypodermic needles that she finds there. It’s never said what was in those needles, but whatever it is, the boss doesn’t want the regular cleaning people to find out, and Jane has to get rid of the needles herself.

Why would anyone put up with this miserable and dysfunctional workplace? As the brainwashed employees constantly tell Jane, she should consider herself lucky to work there, because of the opportunties she could get in the entertainment industry just by being at that job.  (It’s the main reason why many former longtime Weinstein employees have confessed in post-scandal interviews that they stayed as long as they did, even though they knew Weinstein was an abusive boss.)

And yet, for all the preaching from the employees about how privileged they are to work for this company, no one actually looks happy to be there. It’s clear that all of the underlings (not just the women) and many executives stay because, just like rabbits with a carrot dangled out of their reach, they all want the glory and power that they think this job might get them if they stick around long enough and claw their way to the top.

If you’re looking for a feel-good feminist movie where Jane finds female allies, and they band together to take down the predator, this isn’t that kind of film. In fact, except for Jane, all of the women who are seen in the movie come across as either meek victims who give furtive glances, as if they want to say something but are too afraid; power-hungry shrews who look the other way (such as the boss’ wife); or desperately ambitious pretty women who may or may not know that sexual activity is going to part of what’s expected from the predatory boss. In other words, Jane is the only woman in the movie who seems to have a moral compass and the courage to speak out about the abuse that she knows is going on around her.

Similarly, all the men with speaking roles in the movie (except for Jane’s father, who we only hear over the phone) are either dismissive or condescending to Jane. There’s absolutely no subtlety in portraying these male employees as either abusive villains or weak-minded followers who are complicit in their sexism. Meanwhile, Jane is portrayed as a kind-hearted heroine who’s surrounded by a bunch of soulless or vapid people. And therein lies the movie’s biggest flaw: The characters are written with such broad, black-and-white strokes that although the situations in the movie are realistic, the characters often feel underdeveloped and undeservedly clichéd.

It wouldn’t have been that hard to have at least one other smart and likable person in that office besides Jane. Even in other “boss from hell” movies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Swimming With Sharks”), there was at least one other sympathetic character besides the protagonist. For all the horror stories that have been exposed about Weinstein, many people inside and outside his now-defunct company said that there were a lot of good people working there. Many of them (like Jane) couldn’t afford to quit without another job lined up, which is why most people who hate their jobs stay longer than they should. The only way to excuse this movie’s main flaw is that it seems like Green wanted to make it obvious that Jane is very isolated at work. But it’s a point delivered with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The turning point for Jane is when she finds out that her boss from hell has hired another assistant named Sienna (played by Kristen Froseth), a barely legal teen who’s fresh out of high school and has no related work experience. The boss has flown out this attractive, wide-eyed teen from Idaho (he met her in Sun Valley when he was there for a conference) and has put her up in a hotel that Jane knows her boss uses for his “private meetings.” As Jane is tasked with training this new employee, she quickly finds out that Sienna is useless around the office and that Sienna’s employment is probably a cover-up for something sleazy. (Sienna kind of senses it too in her first day on the job, when she’s told to sign some papers, and she hesitantly asks if she needs to have a lawyer.)

The movie’s most powerful scene is when Jane takes her concerns to a high-ranking human resources executive named Wilcock (played by Matthew Macfadyen), who proceeds to turn things around and make it sound like Jane’s concerns have no merit and that she’s just insecure and jealous of Sienna. He browbeats Jane and making her feel like she’s a nuisance and a nutjob.

After Wilcock tells Jane that he has “400 résumés” lined up from people who want her job, he then makes the ultimate manipulative move. He asks her if she thinks it’s worth it for him to take her complaint higher up, or if he should toss out the complaint. “You know how this will look,” he tells her as he shows her the skimpy notes he’s taken during the meeting. And if Jane had any doubt about which side this HR creep is on and how much dirt he really knows about the boss, those doubts are squashed when he ends the meeting by telling her that she doesn’t have anything to worry about with the boss because, “You’re not his type.”

People looking for several flashy and dramatic scenes like this one will be disappointed in the movie overall, which would be a shame, because expecting a predictable formula would be missing the whole point of how this story was told. The movie’s greatest strength is that it shows that the worst sexual harassment, employee abuse and sexism in the workplace are rarely done out in the open where there are plenty of witnesses. The abuse often takes place behind closed doors where the abuser and the victim are the only witnesses.

Sexism in the workplace, even if reported, is often dismissed as a joke. The victim is unfairly branded as a “difficult complainer” who’s “not a good fit” for the company, and then victim is the one who gets fired or is targeted to be fired. Sympathetic co-workers and colleagues might suspect workplace abuse, but they stay silent out of fear of losing their jobs. In many cases, co-workers will side with the workplace bully if they think it will help their careers. These are some of the main reasons why so many victims are afraid to come forward.

The movie adeptly shows that amid the dull office tasks that this lowly assistant must do every day, there’s a feeling of dread and powerlessness that she and probably many other employees feel when they know they’re working for a sexual predator but they think he’s too powerful to stop, especially if he owns the company that employs them. Instead of rallying together to fight the abuse, in most situations, employees have a “mind my own business, keep my head down” way of dealing with these issues.

And the movie accurately depicts the culture of silence from people who are afraid of speaking up about abuse, for fear of retaliation, or they don’t speak up because they just don’t care. Unless harassment is happening to them and negatively affects their jobs directly, many people just don’t want to deal with it, much less talk about it. So, when people ask why it sometimes takes years for people to report work-related abuse or harassment, “The Assistant” should be essential viewing for them, because it does more to explain what’s more likely to happen in real life than any formulaic movie that wraps things up nicely in a safe and tidy bow.

Bleeker Street will release “The Assistant” in select U.S. theaters 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.

R. Kelly scandal: Kelly charged with multiple counts of sexual assault

February 22, 2019

by Colleen McGregor

For the second time in his life, disgraced R&B singer R. Kelly, 52, is facing criminal charges for sex crimes. On February 22, 2019, the Cook County district attorney’s office in Illinois announced that Kelly has been charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four victims in incidents that took place between 1998 and 2010. According to the Associated Press, three of the alleged victims were minors at the time the alleged abuse occurred. Kelly (whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly) is expected to appear at a bond hearing on February 23, and he will have his first court date on March 8. Kelly’s hometown is Chicago, but he has been living mainly in the Atlanta area for the past several years.

Kelly was arrested for multiple counts of child pornography in 2002. At the center of the trial was a videotape made in 2001 which prosecutors said showed Kelly having sex with a then-14-year-old girl, who was the daughter of one of Kelly’s band members. Kelly, who denied all the charges and said he wasn’t the man in the video, didn’t go on trial until 2008, and he was acquitted of all charges. The female in the sex video refused to testify in the trial, and some of the jurors later said in interviews that they could not convict Kelly without her testimony.

Kelly has admitted to settling numerous lawsuits over the years in which he was accused of sexual abuse,  but he has always denied all claims of sexual abuse against him. The Grammy-winning Kelly is best known for his hits “I Believe I Can Fly,” “Bump N’ Grind” and “Step in the Name of Love.”

Although Kelly seemingly survived the scandal in the years since the trial, the #MeToo and Times Up movements re-ignited protests against Kelly. A grass-roots movement called #MuteRKelly was formed in 2018, and was successful in getting several of Kelly’s concerts canceled and his music banned from some radio stations and streaming services. #MuteRKelly also spearheaded the pressure against Sony Music to cut ties with Kelly.

But the tipping point in the tide against Kelly was the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired in January 2019. “Surviving R. Kelly” had interviews with more than 25 people (including his ex-wife Andrea) who either claimed to be victims of harrowing sexual abuse, were related to victims, or were former associates who saw the alleged abuse firsthand. The miniseries reiterated accusations that Kelly is a serial rapist/abuser whose known crimes go as far back as the 1990s, he has an obsession with underage girls, and he is currently abusing women in a “sex cult” environment. After “Surviving R. Kelly” aired and multiple groups staged protests outside of Sony Music’s offices, Sony Music dropped R. Kelly and made it public on January 18, 2019.

UPDATE: Kelly surrendered to authorities in Chicago on February 22, 2019 and pleaded not guilty. He was arrested again on March 6, 2019, for not paying $161,000 in child support to his ex-wife Andrea. Kelly was released on bail after an anonymous donor paid his child support and his bond. Before his arrest for not paying child support, Kelly gave an emotionally unhinged and paranoid interview with CBS News’ Gayle King, in which he shouted that he was innocent of all allegations, and he angrily stated he was the target of a conspiracy.

JULY 16, 2019 UPDATE:  R. Kelly was arrested again for an additional 18 counts, including federal sex-trafficking charges, on July 12, 2019. At a court hearing in Chicago on July 16, 2019, he pleaded not guilty and was ordered to be held without bond.

R. Kelly dropped by Sony Music; his ex-manager arrested for making terroristic threats

January 18, 2019

by Colleen McGregor

After facing immense public backlash, Sony Music has dropped Grammy-winning R&B singer R. Kelly, who has been accused of committing sexual abuse against women and underage girls as far back as the 1990s but has not yet been convicted of any such crimes. Kelly has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. According to Variety, Sony Music had been trying to sever ties with Kelly for several weeks, and made it official on January 18, 2019, when the company removed Kelly from its website. Sony has not yet issued a statement about dropping Kelly or the controversy over Kelly. Sony Music is the parent company of RCA Records, Kelly’s longtime record company. Kelly, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, was previously signed to Jive Records, which Sony shuttered in 2011. Jive’s former artists transferred to RCA. Although Kelly will not be releasing new music with RCA/Sony, his back catalog will remain with the record company. His last album with RCA/Sony was “12 Nights of Christmas,” which was released in 2016.

Meanwhile, Henry James Mason, a former manager of R. Kelly, turned himself into authorities on January 18 in Henry County, Georgia, for charges of threatening to kill Timothy Savage, the father of one of Kelly’s alleged victims, as well as threatening to harm members of the Savage family. Mason, who had a warrant out of his arrest since July 2018, has been released on $10,000 bail, according to Variety.

Timothy and JonJelyn Savage in "Surviving R. Kelly"
Timothy and JonJelyn Savage in “Surviving R. Kelly” (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

Over the years, Kelly, who is 52, has been the subject of numerous stories of abuse against females, particularly underage girls. In 2008, he was acquitted of child pornography charges in which he was accused of videotaping himself having sex with and urinating on a then-14-year-old girl in 2001. Kelly was arrested for the crime in 2002, after the video was leaked to the public and widely bootlegged. The girl who was identified in the video refused to testify in the trial and denied that she was in the video. Complicating matters, the girl’s father worked for R. Kelly as a guitarist in his band before and after the trial. There were several people who knew the girl who testified at the trial, and most of them said that she was the girl in the video. (Her parents did not testify at the trial.) According to what a few of the jurors later told the media after the trial, the lack of testimony from the alleged victim was the main reason why they came to a “not guilty” verdict.

In 1994, Kelly had an illegal marriage to singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time they eloped, but who allegedly lied about her age (saying she was 18) at the time of the marriage ceremony. The marriage, which is on public record, was later annulled in 1995.

Sparkle, a former R. Kelly protégée, in “Surviving R. Kelly.” She says her niece was the underage girl in R. Kelly’s notorious sex video that got him arrested for child pornography in 2002. (Photo courtesy of Lifetime)

In 2017, BuzzFeed reported allegations from numerous people who said that Kelly had brainwashed women into becoming his sex slaves and is controlling them like a cult leader. Later that year, when the #MeToo movement became a major social force, a #MuteRKelly activist group was formed to urge cancellations and boycotting of all things related to R. Kelly. #MuteRKelly has been successful in getting several R. Kelly concerts cancelled. The #MuteRKelly movement led to the BBC Three network in the United Kingdom to do two news investigative specials on R. Kelly in 2018. The parents of the alleged victims who are still living with Kelly, as well as women who used to be sexually involved with Kelly, have also given numerous other media interviews.

However, the most influential tipping point in getting Sony Music to drop R. Kelly seems to be the Lifetime docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired from January 3 to January 5, 2019, and included harrowing interviews with numerous women, such as his ex-wife Andrea, who say that R. Kelly physically, sexually and emotionally abused them. Most of the women were under the age of 18 when they began their sexual relationships with R. Kelly, and many of them were also interviewed in the BBC Three specials. The women who lived with Kelly said that he was so abusive that he would often starve them, beat them, and force them to engage in degrading sexual acts. Almost all of the women who were in long-term sexual relationships with Kelly said that he would isolate them from their family and friends, and they were afraid to leave him because he threatened their lives. They also said that he had so much control over them that he dictated when they could eat, use the bathroom, and talk to other people.

“Surviving R. Kelly” also included interviews with R. Kelly’s brothers Carey (who spoke out against him) and Bruce Kelly (who is supportive of R. Kelly and is currently in prison for theft and other charges) and R. Kelly’s former protégée Sparkle, who says her underage niece was in the infamous R. Kelly sex video. Other people who were interviewed included several former business associates (who all confirmed that R. Kelly had sexual relationships with underage girls) and some of the parents who claim that their daughters have been Kelly’s sex slaves. The parents say that because their daughters are adults and have apparently been forced to deny that Kelly abused them, it has been difficult to get authorities to intervene and rescue their daughters. However, “Surviving R. Kelly” did document how Michelle Kramer, one of the mothers of the alleged victims, was able to successfully get her daughter out of R. Kelly’s life.

According to Lifetime, “Surviving R. Kelly” had 1.9 million total viewers, making it Lifetime’s highest-rated new show in two years and highest-rated new unscripted show in three years. “Surviving R. Kelly” was executive produced by dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg and Jesse Daniels for Kreativ Inc. which has a production deal with Bunim/Murray Productions (BMP). Brie Miranda Bryant from Lifetime is also one of the executive producers.

R. Kelly Accusers in “Surviving R. Kelly”

In the wake of “Surviving R. Kelly” and the public outcry for justice to be served, artists such as Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper removed their collaborations with R. Kelly from streaming and online retail sites, made public apologies for associating with R. Kelly, and voiced their support for the survivors. In addition to having numerous hits as a solo artist (including “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Bump ‘N Grind”), Kelly wrote and/or produced hits for several major stars, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Jay-Z. Aaliyah, who died in a plane crash in 2001, started out as one of Kelly’s protégées, but parted ways with him after her first album and their marriage debacle.

The pressure against RCA/Sony to drop R. Kelly began to increase on January 11, when women’s group UltraViolet hired a plane flying to fly an anti-R. Kelly banner over Sony’s offices in Culver City, California. The banner read “RCA/Sony: Drop Sexual Predator R. Kelly.” Then on January 16, multiple advocacy groups organized a protest outside of Sony Music’s New York City headquarters and delivered a petition reportedly signed by more than 217,000 people to get the record company to sever ties with Kelly.