On Saturday evening, Lifetime aired Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge, and Michel’le, which as the title suggests, is the story of Michel’le, the first lady of Ruthless Records with the tiny speaking voice but huge singing voice who both dated and bore children by Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. That sentence alone makes her story worth hearing because how the fuck? But this movie exists for other reasons.
It’s a counterpoint to last year’s blockbuster, Straight Outta Compton, the story of NWA’s rise an disintegration and the eventual death of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Central to the story is that of Dr. Dre, super-producer, media mogul, and Beats By Dre headphone savant. Dre has pretty much done everything one could do with hip-hop to monetize it, and done it to the max.
Noticeably absent from Straight Outta Compton, though, were the women that played a tremendous part in the lives of our protagonists, both positively and negatively. In fact, the closest thing we have to strong women are Ice Cube’s wife, Kim, and Eazy’s future wife, Tomica, who was present for a bit as she is the one who pulled E’s coat-tails to Jerry’s shenanigans. But mostly, they’re present in a peripheral manner. Just kind of around in the background while our heroes hero.
To know the NWA story is to also note that Michel’le Touissant, professionally known as Michel’le was missing from the movie wholesale; if you let Ruthless Records and Death Row Records folklore tell it (and her) she was pretty much there for everything. Ev-ery-thing. She might as well have been another member of NWA. I’m guessing Arabian Prince feels the same way, but I can’t imagine anybody would care about his story. No shots fired. Michel’le though? Well she’s the woman with the amazing voice that Dr. Dre used to make some R&B money and treated like a punching bag throughout the course of their relationship, according to her.
Let me be clear, when I say “according to her” I don’t in any way think that she’s making it up. It would be ONE hell of an odd move to go so far as to make a movie that takes aim at one of the most famous and wealthy self-made men in the music business and depict him as a terrible human being who drinks too much and has a temper (something Dre alluded to in SOC). Dre threatened to sue her if the movie depicted him as a woman beater. Well it did, pretty convincingly. I expect a lawsuit any minute now. According to the movie, Dre punched her, choked her, shot at her, and left her in a cold house without electricity and food to feed their baby. Basically, in the 80s and 90s, Dr. Dre was one of the world’s worst human beings.
He’s somewhat acknowledged as much in statements leading up to Straight Outta Compton. He apologized to “the women he’s hurt” which undeniably included her and Dee Barnes, though he attacked Michel’le’s credibility in even making the movie. Of course, you know Dre watched it even if he’ll pretend like he didn’t and probably either cringed at the somewhat accurate reflection of who he was or yelled at the television the whole time calling her a lie and a cheat like Joe Jackson.
Suge is pretty much exactly who we think he is towards the end. Early on he seemed like a bit of a sweetheart (to her at least), but he shed that façade, leaving a cold, calculated evil motherfucker who destroyed everything in his wake and who, according to the behind the scenes doc that came on right after, only hit her once because he realized she was too small to take it.
Listen, I don’t say this lightly, but it has to be said: Michel’le’s life sucked. If even a quarter of the movie is accurate (and there are some obvious inaccuracies, then again it’s Lifetime, though their casting attempts are getting better), her life seemed charmed until Dr. Dre drove her off a cliff and left her there. It’s pretty much how I felt about Jesse Pinkman meeting Walter White (again). His life was doomed from the minute he met him.
Michel’le was a woman with a booming voice stifled by insecure, angry, violent men who also couldn’t remove herself from the situation. She went from being charmed by eventual woman beater Dre to being charmed by horrible human Suge. Enabled by a grandmother clearly raised at the “If A Man Don’t Beat You, He Don’t Love You” University, Michel’le seemed troubled from jump. Shit, the opening of the movie is one of the most foreboding intros ever. It sets her up to be the woman who just accepts being beat on.
She also accepts simultaneous newly minted baby mamas. Thank God she got to release an album in 1989’s self-titled debut. It’s an album that I still own. All I knew about Michel’le before this biopic are the stuff most folks knew that had been reported: she has a baby by Dre and Suge; Dre used to beat the breaks off of her, she had one album, and her voice was amazing.
What I did get was her own perspective on how she got where she was and what she was willing to put up with and why. Watching her interviews after made me realize that this is a woman who understands who she is and what she’s been through. She’s smiling and her kids are her light. She seems happy now and as she said, telling her story is empowering. She got the ability to share her truth with the world and seems primed to be ready to address whatever comes with that. That is a sort of freedom you cannot take from anybody, threatened lawsuit or not.
And I don’t imagine that Dr. Dre really wants a lawsuit, anyway. The movie is already out there. Is a lawsuit going to change anybody’s perception? Plus, it stands to get more shit put out there that does nothing to help him out. Putting his hands on her doesn’t’ seem to be up for debate, so what could he possibly be hoping to gain? How could you ruin a woman’s credibility who told a story that isn’t far off from the truth. Plus, is anybody around in those days, including Cube, Ren, or Yella, going to say that he didn't put his hands on her? In the movie, even Eazy told him to chill out.
Also, it’s Dre’s fault. Dre basically forced her hand. What you not gon' do is pretend that some of the most important people WEREN'T around while telling a story you helped write.When they decided to make a movie that erased the major characters, you can’t expect them to all sit by idly. MC Ren was pissed at his sideline characterization. He was one of the main members of the group and you know almost NOTHING of who he is (though if you ask most of us who grew up on hiphop in the 80s and 90s, he’s one of the most underrated rappers ever). A rapper from one of the most popular groups ever that's basically a footnote to the story.
What I can say after watching it is this: Straight Outta Compton REALLY left a lot off the table and she tried to point some of it out. Michel’le was there for it all and was interestingly left out of the story. I wonder why. What did Dre or Cube have to gain from leaving an actual integral person or persons out of the history? JJ Fad expressed similar curiosity. I imagine nobody is interested in the JJ Fad story, but Michel’le happened to be linked in permanent ways to principles in the story AND those powerful men treated her like nothing.
While her story, as presented, might not be 100 percent accurate (in the post show, her introduction to Alonzo Williams and the group was completely different than the movie for some odd reason), it is a different version of a story that includes a woman who was there from damn near the beginning.
Dre tried to erase her, but the truth typically manages to find its way out somehow as it should, even if Lifetime has to be the vessel. I’m glad Michel’le got to tell her story on the screen because she did survive, and hopefully somebody else is better for it.