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From On the Record (courtesy Sundance Institute)

Less than a week before the premiere of one of this year’s most anticipated documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, word came out that the film’s executive producer and distributor had backed away. On the Record, the latest collaboration between directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground, The Invisible War) follows a few of the women who have accused hip hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault. The story took an unexpected turn when Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer, withdrew her credit from the film on January 10. This also means the documentary will no longer be handled by AppleTV+, which has a distribution deal with Winfrey.

On Tuesday, Winfrey addressed the news alongside her longtime friend Gayle King on CBS This Morning. “I believe that the women’s voices deserve to be heard,” she said. “As an executive producer, I also was in a position where I thought some things were not right. I wanted the context of the story to be broadened. I wanted more women brought into the story.”

“This is not a victory for Russell,” Winfrey said, referring to pressure which she says Simmons personally put on her to leave the project. “I cannot be silenced by Russell Simmons after all I’ve been through.”

On January 17, Winfrey told the New York Times that Simmons did not factor into her decision, and that she had misgivings over how the documentary told the story — in particular how the hip hop community might be portrayed by the white filmmakers. She asked director Ava DuVernay (who early in her career had made documentaries about hip hop) for a second opinion, and DuVernay responded negatively to the film. 

Dick and Ziering refused to pull On the Record from Sundance, claiming that doing so could potentially damage the credibility of the women who came forward with their stories. “We felt like we could address them,” Dick told the Los Angeles Times about Winfrey’s late-stage concerns. “We didn’t really feel like the film needed them, because the film was already good, but as good partners, we wanted to honor the relationship and just keep moving forward.” The filmmaker said they were “caught off guard” by Winfrey’s departure. 

Drew Dixon, one of Simmons’s accusers, told the New York Times, “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.” Earlier, Simmons’s accusers said in a joint statement: “Russell Simmons and his enablers cannot intimidate us, bully us or ignore us. Unyielding as a force, united in our resolve, we are black women standing with survivors of all colors and we will not be silenced.” 

On the Record remains scheduled to premiere at Sundance on January 25.

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