Culture / Entertainment

Oprah Creates a #MeToo Controversy, a Surprise Movie Steals Sundance and The Glorias Inspires — and Drags

How Powerful Women Dominated the Movie Festival

BY // 02.06.20

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival, which ended its 10 day run on Sunday, typically screens a number of movies that highlight women who are working to effect change. Two years ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Fonda and women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred were featured in absorbing documentaries.

This year was no different, with a Hillary Clinton documentary one of the most sought after tickets. I passed on that (it’s a four hour film that I can watch next month as a four part Hulu series), and focused on a documentary, docudrama and thrilling drama, all directed by and focusing on heroic women.

The Oprah Warning

On The Record, directed by award winning directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Hunting Game), got a lot of buzz before the Festival started, and not for the right reasons. Oprah Winfrey, the executive producer of this #MeToo documentary in which numerous African American women accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual assault, publicly withdrew as executive producer 10 days before Sundance began.

Winfrey cited the need for more investigation, despite working on the documentary for nearly two years. She subsequently admitted that Simmons pressured her to pull her support though she insists that didn’t influence her decision. Shortly thereafter, Apple Streaming TV pulled its support from the project as well. To its credit, Sundance never flinched and the publicity made the film a must have ticket.

On The Record tells the story of Drew Dixon, a Stanford graduate who joined Def Jam Recordings and rose through the ranks under the tutelage of her mentor Russell Simmons. One night in 1995, he tricked her to coming to his apartment and raped her. She is filmed, beginning in 2017, as she agonizes over whether to disclose the rape to the New York Times as it was starting its #MeToo investigation. Dixon eventually did talk to the Times, as did nearly 20 other women, several of whom appear in the film and describe Simmons’ actions in painful, heartbreaking detail. Simmons now lives in Bali, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

Oprah Winfrey withdrew her support from #metoo documentary "On The Record" that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival
Oprah Winfrey withdrew her support from #metoo documentary “On The Record” that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival

This is not the first #MeToo documentary to make an impact at Sundance. Last year’s Sundance film, Untouchable, highlighted the investigation of Harvey Weinstein, with the victims’ stories being of secondary importance. On The Record distinguishes itself by focusing primarily on one woman whose career was derailed by the rape, and highlights the unique problems that African American women have coming forward to tell their stories of sexual abuse, especially from black men.

These arguments include claims that enough black male celebrities have been recently punished for their sexual assaults (Bill Cosby being one of the latest), so that further exposure does more damage to their race than it punishes the perpetrator.  And that the 500-year history of the treatment of black men and women by slave traders and owners plays a larger, systemic role.

Sadly, Dixon’s #MeToo story does not end with Simmons assault. She subsequently joined Atlantic Records and experienced great success under Clive Davis. But after Davis left Arista Records, Dixon says that his successor and her new boss L.A. Reid (remember him as a judge from The X Factor?) sexually harassed her.

She refused his advances and he retaliated by refusing to sign her discoveries, including John Legend and Kanye West. In 2017, Sony Music fired Reid following a claim  of sexual harassment.

This is an important, well-told film that was greeted with two standing ovations, tears and cheers for the filmmakers and the victims. It is deserving of a wide audience. To the delight of many filmgoers, even with Oprah’s and Apple’s abrupt pullout, HBO Max acquired On The Record following its Sundance debut, and will screen it later this year.

The Four Glorias

The Glorias is a drama about feminist icon Gloria Steinem based on her best-selling autobiography, My Life on the Road. Directed by Julie Taymor of the original The Lion King, four different actresses play Gloria, representing different times in her life, most prominently Julianne Moore, who plays her during her mid years and who looked uncannily like Steinem.

Alicia Vikander portrays Steinem from ages 20 to 40. The cast includes Timothy Hutton as Steinem’s father, Bette Midler in an outstanding turn as Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Lorraine Toussaint as the fun and outrageous Flo Kennedy.

Steinem has been one of my idols ever since I heard her speak while I was in college. I was looking forward to this film and indeed, parts of it brought me to tears. Unfortunately, The Glorias is uneven in its attempt to tell Steinman’s story.

Let’s start with the basics. First, at two hours and 27 minutes, it is much too long. Second, Taymor tries to bring a little bit of Broadway to the film by having animated sequences, dreams and the various Glorias talking to each other repeatedly as they ride a bus. Yes, we know the bus symbolizes Steinem’s itinerant childhood, but showing it once would have been enough.

Steinem’s story is so inspiring that it doesn’t need the Broadway bling that Taymor adds. At its best the film is a tribute and celebration of the women’s movement for equality. Steinem literally changed the way companies look at female employees, and the way women look at themselves. It is inspiring — especially for movie-goers who did not come of age with Steinem — to learn about her childhood influences and ascent to be a spokesperson and founder of the modern women’s movement for equality

The film ends with Steinem speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. You could hear sniffles throughout the theater as the audience felt Steinem’s profound impact.

Interestingly, many viewers were loath to criticize the film, especially the showings where Steinem was at the Q&A. She is still a revered icon. There were lots of discussions that begin with comments like “I remember when I could not get a loan without my husband’s signature, even though I was the breadwinner.”

Some critics didn’t feel the same love. Negotiations are still underway for acquisition of the film, and it will undoubtedly be tightened up and edited. Even with its weaknesses, The Glorias is a film that everyone, especially young men and women, should see.

Sundance’s Surprise Show Stealer

I watched 23 movies at Sundance, which ranged from great to absolutely and astonishingly  awful. One of my final films was so good that I want to shout it  from the rooftops. Promising Young Woman, a drama starring Cary Mulligan, is a clever, bold, suspenseful, sad and happy film. It is just darn fabulous

The less said about it the better so as not to spoil the movie’s surprises and twists  The most important thing to know is Promising Young Woman is directed by Killing Eve show runner Emerald Fennell in her directorial debut (she also acts, and played Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown). Expect a serious plot combined with style, a wink — and a message.

Promising Woman
Cary Mulligan stars in Sundance Film Festival “A Promising Woman” (photo courtesy of Focus Films)

Mulligan plays Cassie who is a medical school dropout living at home with her parents who are clearly worried about her mental state. Cassie wants to punish aggressive men who try to sexually assault women, and leads a double life trying to do just that.

The film demands you look at male entitlement unflinchingly. While it is cruel, it is also funny and not preachy. Promising Young Woman is a little quirky and weird at times and almost jumps the shark at one point — but not quite. Audiences will be rewarded with a wickedly smart and surprising ending.

Mulligan is outstanding, and her performance and the movie will stay with you for a long time. Expect superb performances from a cast that includes Molly Shannon, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Adam Brody and Bo Burnham.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston with offices in New York, San Francisco and San Diego. For more on Jane’s daily Sundance adventures check out her Twitter and Instagram feeds.

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