In October 2017, as women claiming to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by Harvey Weinstein began coming forward and the story was blowing wide open, the #MeToo movement caught fire all across social media. Kitty Green’s The Assistant, which depicts a single day in the life of an entry-level worker in an unnamed hotshot movie producer’s office, premiered rather quietly at Telluride last fall but should now see a boost from the generally positive reviews coming out of Sundance before it opens in theaters on January 31. By contrast, On the Record, a documentary that gives voices to several women who have accused Def Jam Recordings cofounder Russell Simmons of sexual assault—and it should be noted that Simmons denies all such allegations—came roaring into Park City propelled by a controversy beyond the control of filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.
As Brent Lang reports for Variety,On the Record was met with “not one, but two thunderous standing ovations” at Sundance, one before the screening even began and the other after the credits rolled. Just over two weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey, who had been serving as executive producer, backed away from the project, taking Dick and Ziering’s distribution deal with Apple TV+ with her. The rattled directors told the Los Angeles Times’ Amy Kaufman that Winfrey had given them twenty minutes to “digest the news” before she issued a public announcement.
While Winfrey insists that she believes the women who tell their stories in On the Record—activist Sil Lai Abrams, actress and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, hip-hop artist Sherri Hines, former model Keri Claussen Khalighi, and the true focus of the film, former A&R executive Drew Dixon—her “objections have been frustratingly vague,” as Slate’s Sam Adams puts it, adding that “it appears that it’s the movie’s attempts to tie Simmons’s actions to the culture of 1990s hip-hop that may have caused her objections.” In the Los Angeles Times,Justin Chang notes that several of the interviewees “speak about the specific pressure on black women to protect their abusers, so as not to perpetuate the stereotype of the sexually rapacious black male—a noxious myth that has been used to justify lynchings and other crimes against black men for centuries. In one of the most wrenching moments, Dixon explains why it took her decades to go on the record: ‘I took it for the team. I didn’t want to let the culture down. I loved the culture. I loved Russell, too.’”
Lang notes that in “an emotional Q&A, Winfrey went unnamed, but it was clear that her decision to distance herself from the project had left raw feelings.” Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro reports that one audience member asked whether “some of this push-back, even though it’s a story of black women,” might have something to do with the fact that Dick and Ziering are white. Dixon was eager to take this question on, and D’Alessandro quotes her response at length: “A lot of this is about power, right? And ecosystems of power. And all of us have kept our stories to ourselves for decades and there are people within that ecosystem who knew our stories. Some of those people are filmmakers. It’s an entertainment industry story after all, right? . . . So, to me, this is why the filmmakers are white. Because they don’t have the same vulnerability. And so, thank God.”
Dick and Ziering have also been investigating stories of sexual abuse and the all but inevitably ensuing cover-ups for years now. Dick’s Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith (2004) focuses on the Catholic Church, and as a team, Dick and Ziering have tackled sexual assault in the military in The Invisible War (2012) and rape on college campuses in The Hunting Ground (2015). On the Record “presents a searing, at times shocking exposé of alleged criminal acts,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. At the same time, “what’s extraordinary is the disturbingly intimate communion the film creates between the audience and the survivors.” In the Hollywood Reporter,Beandrea July points out that On the Record is shot “primarily in direct-to-camera close-ups enveloped by gold-toned lighting” and “feels more like a fireside chat than a punishing exposé meant to overwhelm.” Even so, for Rolling Stone’s David Fear, it’s “a lot for just two hours.” Dick and Ziering “could have, and maybe should have, turned this into a multi-part miniseries.”
The Assistant, on the other hand, is “a spartan procedural,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. Julia Garner plays Jane, a new hire at a New York production house tasked with an array of mundane jobs, such as unclogging printers and fetching lunch, as well as a few that give her pause, such as babysitting the kids of the young women visiting the boss behind the closed door, taking calls from his angry wife, and removing the unspeakable stains from his couch.
The producer, overtly fashioned after Harvey Weinstein, never appears on-screen. His stand-in is an empty chair. For Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, the “power of Green’s film can be summed up in the fact that this chair is almost all you need—the ways it holds the centers and edges and backgrounds of her frames, the way you can feel its power without even looking at it directly.” At Vulture, Alison Willmore finds that “the man himself is less psychologically interesting than the people around him, and how they’ve learned to tolerate, accommodate, rationalize away, or internalize his behavior. What makes the film such a spare but searingly insightful treatment of the issues at the core of Me Too is the way it refuses to separate its unseen executive’s sexual predation from the larger structures that enable it.”
And as Dowd points out, The Assistant “doesn’t spare its heroine blame.” There is “no inspirational upshot” here. “This is not a loosely fictionalized version of the story of how Weinstein was finally toppled,” adds Dowd. “It’s more like the story of why it took so long.” Jane does muster the courage to speak to HR, but it isn’t long before she’s back to her daily routine.
Several critics mention Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) as a point of reference, and Green has indeed told Women and Hollywood that Chantal Akerman’s “focus on gesture and rhythm as well as her use of time to demonstrate the realities of domestic labor were a great influence on The Assistant.” Talking to Tomris Laffly at RogerEbert.com, Green says that Jeanne Dielman “was the first movie I watched maybe in my late teens or early twenties where I thought, ‘Wow, this is what a movie can be.’ I was shocked by that movie. That was the movie that made me want to make movies.”
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