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Oprah Winfrey backed out of the Russell Simmons sexual assault documentary. Why the fallout was 'horrible'

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Twenty minutes. That's how long Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering had to digest the news that Oprah Winfrey was pulling her support of their documentary before she released the announcement to the press.

The email from Winfrey, sent at 3:10 p.m. on Jan. 10, had come as a shock. In her message, the filmmakers said, the Harpo Productions head said she would no longer be serving as the executive producer of their still untitled documentary about the survivors of Russell Simmons' alleged sexual abuse. Subsequently, the movie -- set to premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival -- was dropped from a planned release on Apple TV+ through Winfrey's deal with the streaming platform.

"In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision," Winfrey said in her 3:30 p.m. statement, in which she also made it clear she "unequivocally" believes and supports the film's subjects. "Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are talented filmmakers. I have great respect for their mission but given the filmmakers' desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it's best to step aside."

Dick and Kirby, who have collaborated on six nonfiction films together, had never been under the impression that Winfrey had serious concerns about the documentary. On the contrary: Ever since they first met with her in New York in January 2019, they said, she had been effusive in her praise of the project.

"She loved, loved, loved what we did," recalled Ziering, sitting in her Brentwood, Calif., home alongside Dick -- her filmmaking partner -- earlier this week. "And then she saw it numerous times throughout the editing process. We had a very close working relationship and very, very positive -- enthusiastically positive. There weren't any issues."

Winfrey, who did not respond to The Times' request for comment, announced her collaboration with Dick and Ziering -- then called "Toxic Labor" -- at Apple TV's first media presentation in Cupertino, Calif., on March 25. Apple, which also did not respond to The Times' inquiries, subsequently wrote the application submitting the movie to Sundance in October, the filmmakers said. It was accepted to the festival, and in November, Ziering and Dick locked picture. On Dec. 3 -- a day before the Sundance lineup was released -- Harpo and Apple put out their own announcement touting the collaboration.

 

"Apple was busy booking us rooms and flights," Ziering said. "There was no intonation of any problems whatsoever."

Online, however, backlash was brewing. On Dec. 12, the rapper 50 Cent posted a picture of a smiling Winfrey and Simmons together on his Instagram account, accompanied by a caption questioning "why Oprah is going after black men" instead of Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein. He alluded to the fact that Winfrey had also supported two alleged survivors of Michael Jackson's sexual abuse who appeared in the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland." After that film aired in March 2019, Winfrey sat down with the subjects, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, for an interview special. She has since said that never before in her career had one of her interviews sparked such "hateration."

Simmons, meanwhile, voiced his own disappointment with Winfrey on Dec. 13. In a letter addressed to Winfrey, the disgraced former R&B mogul said he found it "troubling" that she had chosen him to "single out" in the project. The filmmakers were not alarmed by the post: "That's accused predator playbook 2.0," Ziering said.

But a few days later, the directors received a new round of notes from Harpo, and Winfrey suggested the film might not be ready for Sundance. The suggestions they'd received from the production company up to this point, they said, had been "wonderful" and "acute" -- mostly small things such as "we don't like the way this scene transitions" or "can we build out this scene because we want more of this character," Dick explained.

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