Input from When They See Us film director Ava DuVernay was a factor in Oprah Winfrey’s process of deciding to withdraw as an executive producer from the Sundance Film Festival-bound documentary On the Record, according to Winfrey in an interview published Friday in the New York Times.
Winfrey’s stunned filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering by withdrawing from their feature documentary about women who have accused media mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. As Deadline reported, the film is still scheduled to be screened January 25 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it will now be looking for a distributor after Winfrey also pulled the film from the Apple TV+ streaming platform.
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In the New York Times story today on her decision, Winfrey said she had misgivings about its direction. So she sent the documentary to DuVernay for her opinion on whether the two filmmakers “captured the nuances of hip-hop culture and the struggles of black women.”
DuVernay reportedly gave a “harsh” negative opinion on that score. She then backed up that assessment in a later interview.
“She’s got Simmons on one side pressuring her, and then she’s got a film on the other side that she doesn’t agree with,” DuVernay said to the Times. “So if she walks away from the film, she seems like she’s caving to Simmons, and if she stays with the film, then she’s putting her name on something that she feels doesn’t quite hit the mark.”
DuVernay’s input obviously had a huge affect on Winfrey’s ultimate decision. The filmmakers called Winfrey’s decision “sudden,” which surprised them since the project’s content had been closely monitored by all.
“We had a really great working relationship with Ms. Winfrey, Harpo, and Apple throughout the many stages of crafting the film,” Dick and Ziering said in a statement to the Times. “We feel we more than delivered a finished film that is in keeping with the qualities of excellence, integrity and veracity that we hold dear.”
Dick and Ziering claimed everyone worked closely on the production, viewing each cut of the film. The NYT story claimed that executives at Winfrey’s Harpo responded to the final cut of the film with an email saying in part “We absolutely loved watching the latest cut — it’s incredible.”
The film was accepted to Sundance, and Apple and Harpo issued a joint news release in early December that called the film “a profound examination of race, gender, class and intersectionality, and the toll assaults take on their victims and society at large.”
Winfrey withdrew January 10, citing creative differences and hinting that the film was being screened “before I believe it is complete.”
The Times story published Friday suggested a different motive. It said there was an “intense campaign by Mr. Simmons and his supporters to get Ms. Winfrey to pull the plug.”
Winfrey acknowledged that there was pressure. “He did reach out multiple times and attempted to pressure me,” Winfrey said, noting that Simmons and unnamed “other people” questioned the veracity of the woman at the center of the accusations, Drew Dixon.
Winfrey said that she still believed Dixon, but was troubled by “inconsistencies in her account that the film had not adequately addressed.”
For her part, Dixon told the Times that “I am being silenced. The broader community is being intimidated. The most powerful black woman in the world is being intimidated.”
Simmons has denied accusations of nonconsensual sex. He has not been charged with any crime.
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