Posts Tagged ‘Thembisa S. Mshaka’

‘On The Record’ is The ‘Bombshell’ Black Woman Survivors Deserve

February 7, 2020

By Thembisa S. Mshaka

Patriarchy is an attention whore. When men raping and sexually assaulting women is the topic, the survivors are routinely relegated to the shadows, and the men wind up in the spotlight. Whether we see the actual perpetrators, or the men (and the women who love them) rush to defend them, the conversation is diverted to the perp’s well-being. The impact of being accused on them. Their careers. Their families’ rights to privacy and respect. And once the coddling of the offender has been taken care of, the patriarchal gaze turns with condescension to the women who survived. The respectability inquisition begins.

“Why say something now?”

“She wants his money.”

“Why didn’t she report it?”

“What was she doing there in the first place?”

“Everyone knows he’s a creep. That’s on her.”

Add being a Black woman survivor to this cauldron, and the questions become caustic. Why? Because at the intersection of money, power, race and rape, the bodies of Black women are sacrificed. The souls of Black women are forsaken.

“Well, look at her. She should have expected it.”

“I know [insert perp’s name here]. He was never like that with me.”

“She’s trying to destroy Black men.”

“These gold diggers cry rape all the time.”

“She’s not credible.”

I saw On The Record at Sundance last month. Like every audience at all of its screenings in Park City, I was riveted and horrified, then moved out of my seat to a standing ovation. It’s explosive, but not like C-4; it steals breath and overpowers, consuming like ether. And this is the film’s superpower: its approach mirrors the experience of sexual assault itself, and then, brings you face to face with nine women who recount being raped or sexually assaulted by music mogul Russell Simmons. The film also includes a formidable selection of hip-hop artists and hip-hop culture experts, including Dr. Joan Morgan and veteran writer/EIC Kierna Mayo, who join scholars Dr. Shanita Hubbard and Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, specialists at examining Black women across history and in the present moment for much needed context as the stories of the survivors unfold. Me Too Movement founder Tarana Burke also lends her insight on the importance of centering survivors and holding institutions accountable to the film.

The relative absence of Black men speaking on the pervasiveness of rape culture in the music industry is disappointing, but not surprising. From caping for serial rapists and blaming the victim, to bullying the allies of survivors, rape apologist Bingo is a popular game among the boys club, and this is true of the Black boyz club, too. This is why the presence of music producers Miguel Mojica and Daddy-O (pictured below) are so vital—they do what we need more men of all stripes to do—defy “money over bitches” misogyny while openly rejecting predatory behavior.

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Once I returned from the festival, I made it my business to see Bombshell. Thankfully, the film’s Oscar nods for acting (nominees Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron are outstanding, as is Nicole Kidman) and makeup (Vivian Baker is masterful) gave it an extended run in theaters. I was looking for parallels and of course, intersections. I found plenty of both.

As a caveat, format is an important distinction. On The Record is a documentary, vetted and fact checked vigorously by its directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. They stood up to the Pentagon by making The Invisible War, so they don’t play around with legalities. While based on real people and true events, Bombshell is a dramatic feature that owns up to adding elements and situations to its story. The commonalities, however, are stunning.

The indifference and silence of men is deafening in both films. With the exception of Mojica and Daddy-O in On The Record, keeping a job or being loyal to a perpetrator is preferable to defending women. In Bombshell, men and women alike rally to support Roger Ailes, who, despite cases being brought against Fox News, sexually assaulted women for a generation with impunity, until former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes personally. Megyn Kelly’s male producer is more concerned with his job than her allegation or her experience of being violated.

Both films compel the viewer to take the journey women take all too often: that of being in the crosshairs of a hostile work environment, where one’s choices are to suffer by giving in to their assailant’s advances and demands, or suffer the consequences of a demotion, a firing, public humiliation, the poisoning of one’s name in her field, or some cruel combination of the above.

In excruciating detail, former major label A&R executive Drew Dixon outlines the mental and physical contortion required to do her job at Def Jam Recordings in the 1990’s. She recounts Simmons hemming her up at a bar, attempting to kiss her and exposing himself to her in her office, and when none of this yielded conquest…luring her into his bedroom under the guise of hearing a demo CD, then forcibly penetrating her. Dixon was 24, in the prime of her career, after a string of hits, including the GRAMMY® winning song “You’re All I Need” by Mary J. Blige and Method Man. Over the course of the film, she reflects on the shattering of every area of her life, noting that “her life is the crime scene” as the survivor of rape.

Kayla, Robbie’s character in Bombshell, echoes this assertion as she takes inventory of the aftermath of the Ailes takedown. “Here’s the thing about sexual harassment. You’re ruled by the questions. What did I do? What did I wear? What did I miss? Will this define me?” Kelly had swallowed the violation she experienced by Ailes for a decade, holding it in to advance her career and feed her family. Carlson paid the cost of being fired and then dragged in the media, forced to relive yet again that which she had survived. Being blonde and conservative wasn’t enough to save them. Every survivor in each film grapples with the paralyzing fear of going public, and the fallout they face once they do. It is agonizing to watch.

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And here’s where the paths diverge along race and class. The Black women survivors who came forward against Simmons are beyond the statute of limitations, placing Simmons out of reach for legal action. Carlson won her lawsuit against Ailes, netting $20 million (with a gag order) and toppling Ailes from his post (Ailes won a hefty severance package). Several women employees who were harassed at Fox News were compensated from a $50 million dollar settlement.

Black women survivors get the package nobody wants: the labels of race traitor and slanderer. They get to pack up and go home, with their reputations destroyed, careers derailed, and the crushing baggage of scars, trauma and possibly, healing to unpack. It is a years-long picking of unrelenting, ravaging shrapnel.  The devastation to the survivors and their families is incalculable.

So while there are no reparations, there is freedom in the testimony, and there is a reckoning. Ugly truths come to light. Names are put on the record. Perpetrators meet consequences that for too long, society has enabled them to avoid. And yet. None of that compares to what survivors endure. On The Record reminds us of this with the words of Anita Hill and Desiree Washington, whose assailants Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson enjoy a lifetime Supreme Court appointment and go on to stints on Broadway, respectively. And while Simmons continues to deny any wrongdoing on social media, he is also living in Bali, a nation that has no extradition treaty with the United States. It stands to reason that an innocent man need not to go to this extreme to stay out of court and/or prison…unless there are survivors with allegations for whom the statute of limitations have yet to run out. The film makes no comment on this inconsistency of proclamations and actions on the part of Simmons.

On The Record is so powerful and so well crafted, it emerged from Sundance with distribution on HBO Max, after Oprah Winfrey declined to stay aboard as its executive producer.

Impervious to silence, On The Record is the Bombshell Black women have been waiting on for centuries, and it is the megaphone they deserve.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business and an award-winning media and advertising creative. Her latest work can be read in the anthology Uncommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race and Friendship, Edited by Kersha Smith and Marcella Runell Hall.

 

The United States of 50 Cent

April 4, 2009
So my new favorite Sunday show, The United States of Tara comes to a close this weekend.

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In a nutshell (pardon the pun) Toni Collette deftly dances between her central character, named Tara, and that woman’s other personalities, or ‘alters’: T, a petulant, hypersexed teenager; Alice, a prudish but alluring homemaker cut from Donna Reed’s cloth; Buck, her male alter who lives at the intersection of trailer trash biker and delusional Vietnam vet. And then: there’s Gimme, the feral child, an alter that screeches, cowers, destroys and even pees on sleeping relatives in the middle of the night.


The show has led me to draw an unlikely parallel between Tara and of all people, 50 Cent. Now, I am not a shrink, and I don’t think 50 Cent has multiple personality disorder. On the contrary: I think he’s got a firm grasp on who he is. But the Showtime series, executive produced by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, got me to thinking about all the personalities 50 has revealed to us thus far.

For the show’s central character Tara, there is Curtis Jackson. He listens more than he talks, is a brilliant creative (like Tara, who is a muralist—only his mediums are movies, music, books and apparel). Low-key and perceptive, Curtis is probably the least exciting of all the personalities, but loveable for the same reasons.


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Then there’s Tara’s polar opposite, T. Less than half Tara’s age with twice the sex drive, and no regard for consequences. T’s attitude is ‘all me all the time’, period. And while the only way to dial T back is to banish her to the shed in the family’s back yard, sometimes it’s cool having T around because she knows how to have a good time. In 50’s amusement park, this character is the irrepressible Pimpin’ Curly. A newly revealed personality, Curly rocks plush furs, a red sistercurl ‘do (okay, it’s a wig cocked to the side, but roll with me here), fresh kicks, and a mouth as foul as his attitude. And it works for him. His bitches love it. And the money they bring him is all that matters; he’s a legend in his own mind.


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Even among Tara’s alters, there is a voice of reason. The same holds true for Curtis. In Tara’s world, there is Alice, perfectly coiffed with clipped speech. Alice’s work is in the home, but make no mistake—she’s all business. You better have it together around Alice, and if you don’t she’ll help you with that. Even the show’s subway posters for Alice read ‘She’s One Tough Mother’. Enter Earl, the equivalent personality for Curtis. Straight-laced and accomplished in the corporate world, he’s one tough brother. He’s even shared co-consciousness with Curly and faced him down, telling Curly, “I’m not afraid of you. You’re goin’ to hell. Hell, hell, hell, hell, HELL!”

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Who among the United States of 50 measures up to Buck, Tara’s chain-smoking, crotch adjusting male alter? Well, that’s easy. 50 Cent. He’s as male as male gets. Swagger and shit-talking beyond belief, right down to the monogram pistol holster. To let this guy tell it, he’s invincible. And he has a point: he survived Southside Jamaica, Queens, the drug trade and being served a dishonorable discharge from the rap game after being shot 9 times. Exacting revenge on the same industry that left him for dead says he’s right.


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I was 50’s advertising writer for “How To Rob” and Power of The Dollar. Our bond goes back to 1999 B.B. (Before the Bullets). He even generously blessed the back cover of my book with a quote.


“There are only a couple people I still keep in touch with from my days at Columbia, people who totally focused on my project and did their best for me. Thembisa is one of them.”
—50 Cent, Shady/Aftermath recording artist and G-Unit branding phenomenon


I’ve been in the presence of both Curtis and 50 Cent. I have witnessed the warm smile of one soul transition into the sneer of another at close range. More recently, I have been thoroughly entertained from afar by Curly and Earl, who prove that Curtis hasn’t lost his sense of humor, and may have even found some self-deprecation after all the success he’s achieved in music, business, film, and fashion.

When an alter overtakes Tara, she transitions as a result of a word, action or behavior that triggers their appearance. Unlike Curtis, Tara is still wondering what cataclysmic event brought on her mental state. Curtis’ near-death experience answered that question for him. See, I believe he knows why these personalities are manifesting, and more than that, wields them in a way Tara can’t. All this shrink talk from The United States of Tara begs a few questions.


What do you think triggers Curtis? Is there a Gimme in his arsenal of personalities? If so, when will we get to meet him? Or is he holding that one back before he self-destructs?


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I for one can’t wait to find out.


Showtime’s The United States of Tara finale premieres Sunday, April 5 at 10pm. My book Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business streets April 23. The new album from 50 Cent, Before I Self Destruct is slated for release later this year.