HBO Max's 'On the Record': Sil Lai Abrams on Being Silent No More

HBO Max’s On the Record is a compelling documentary from filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering about the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The 95-minute film features interviews with women who have publicly accused Simmons, including former senior A&R executive Drew Dixon (involved in hit songs by Whitney Houston, Kanye West, Method Man and Mary J. Blige), whose story the documentary primarily follows, as well as Jenny Lumet and Sil Lai Abrams, among others. The documentary also investigates the ways in which women of color — no matter their socioeconomic status — are often silenced when they come forward alleging sexual assault. 

For Abrams, an author and domestic violence activist who came forward with her story in a 2018 The Hollywood Reporter interview, participating in On the Record was never in the plans. It was a conversation she had with Dixon, who informed her about the documentary, that “started a dialogue,” the former model said, leading her to agree to be interviewed.

“I chose to participate really not thinking about what the end product would be and why I’m doing it,” Abrams told ET during a recent phone interview. “It was, ‘Well, I’ll have an opportunity to meet Jenny and Drew in person for the first time,’ and for that to be captured on film would be very poignant because it was a tremendously emotional time in my life.”

That meeting between Abrams, Lumet and Dixon is featured in On the Record, which premiered at Sundance, and is a particularly touching moment in the documentary. The women tearfully and emotionally bond and support each other as they take control of their respective narratives. 

“When I sat down and did the actual one-on-one interview [for On the Record], it was painful. But I walked away and didn’t think much about it until we got close to release,” Abrams recalled, adding later, “If you look at the trajectory of this film and the fight to get to release, it really exemplifies on a macro scale what happens to us, to survivors, on a micro level and the difficulties that we face coming forward.”

The road to On the Record‘s eventual May 27 premiere on HBO Max was marred with obstacles, including the parting of ways with Oprah Winfrey, who was previously attached as an executive producer. Winfrey departed the project earlier this year over creative differences with the filmmakers, telling the New York Times in January that Simmons had also tried to get her to drop out. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said at the time. This is just one example of the reach Simmons, seen as an early pioneer of hip-hop, has within the Black community. (Abrams has been vocal about Simmons appearing on the popular radio program, The Breakfast Club, in June, where he said he is “not a monster or a victimizer.”)

Simmons has “vehemently” denied all accusations of sexual misconduct against him, saying in a social media statement after Dixon went public in 2017 through a New York Times article that detailed the accounts of Dixon and three others, “I have never had a sexual encounter that was not consensual or lawful. Ever.”

“I found that was quite disappointing because while everybody’s litigating whether or not a billionaire should or should not participate in a film, there are survivors. Not just us. There is a legion of Black women who have been violated and abused and whose voices have been erased,” Abrams said. “And it was important that our stories be told. I chose to get involved because of my commitment to the issues around gender violence, but I had no idea the circuitous path that it would take to release.”

On the Record also attempts to explain the double bind Abrams said Black women face when it comes to feeling duty-bound to protect the Black community while being fearful about reporting sexual violence. According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, Black women are disproportionately more at risk of sexual violence.  

“We’re constantly put in the position of choosing our race before our gender, and we don’t have the luxury of separating the two. Whenever we see large-scale protests and new movements for Black people, invariably it’s cisgender, heterosexual Black men who are held up as the archetype of what oppression, police brutality and systemic racism looks like in our country,” Abrams said. “But Black women and Black people — gender-nonconforming and particularly trans women — suffer extraordinarily high rates of violence at the hands of the police and at the hands of the community. And we are not permitted to speak out because to do so is seen as an alignment with the white… culture and society, which attacks us as a whole.”

“So we circle the wagons to protect our community at the expense of ourselves, which is not a phenomenon limited strictly to the Black community,” she continued. “Anything that can potentially disrupt those bonds between us is dismissed as a distraction, when in fact gender violence is in and of itself a global women’s health issue. And it needs to be centered within the movement. This film is an opportunity to do that to some extent.”

Nearly two months after the film’s release, Abrams said viewer response to On the Record has impacted her emotionally. 

“I’ve received calls from people crying. I’ve seen people comment about the film… It’s been bittersweet because one of the darkest times of my life is highlighted in that film and it’s strange seeing people talk about you like you’re not a person. You’re a character versus a survivor,” she reflected. “I think one thing I would hope people understand is that there still really is — while the storyline largely revolves around Drew, her experience or those of the other women in the film, [is] a stand-in for Black women as a whole. And that people understand this isn’t about one person.”

“This is really about a whole community of people and that gets lost at times. I know the directors [of On the Record] are quite intentional about ensuring people understand this is about a larger systemic issue,” Abrams said. “I am very sensitive to hierarchies of power and values placed on people’s stories. I want people to remember that there is a collective of survivors that have been impacted [and] that are represented in this film and there are so many who cannot speak up. Well, are afraid to speak up.”

“This is bigger than lost dreams. This is really about a fight for our lives. This is really about the continued marginalization of Black women’s issues within social movements for Black liberation,” she continued. “Each survivor’s story in the film is equally important. I hope that that’s a takeaway that people get because that is the intent of the film and it’s an important message that people need to understand.”

On the Record is streaming now on HBO Max.

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