Michel’le’s Lifetime movie, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le, received an unexpected publicity boost Sunday when news broke that mogul/producer/rapper Dr. Dre sent a cease and desist letter to Sony over his portrayal in the biopic, threatening to sue if the film aired. Surviving Compton is Michel’le’s answer of sorts to last year’s sanitized NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton, which featured only a passing mention of Michel’le despite her frequent collaboration with the group’s members (including her star-making vocals on the World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s 1987 hit “Turn Off the Lights,” one of the earliest of Dr. Dre’s productions to receive airplay on a national scale). Surviving Compton chronicles Michel’le’s professional and personal relationship with Dre (he produced her biggest hits like “No More Lies” and “Something in My Heart,” and they have a child together, Marcel), as well as her relationship with Suge Knight. Multiple scenes portray Michel’le (Rhyon Nicole Brown) being abused physically and verbally by Dre (played by newcomer Curtis Hamilton), depicting allegations that Michel’le has been sharing with the press for well over a year now.
At the end of Surviving Compton, a title card reads, “Dr. Dre, through his attorney, denies abusing Michel’le and challenges her credibility.” This would seem to contradict Dre’s statement to the New York Times that apologized “to the women I’ve hurt,” which was released in 2015, days after interviews ran in which Michel’le and rapper Tairrie B described being physically assaulted by Dre, as well as in the wake of journalist/rapper Dee Barnes’s essay for Gawker, in which she wrote Dre beat her in a nightclub bathroom in 1991.
I talked to Michel’le last week—before TMZ’s report of Dre’s lawsuit threat—and confirmed that his denial of abuse occurred after his New York Times apology. In response to an inquiry as to whether Michel’le was included in Dre’s summary of “women I’ve hurt,” his attorney, Howard E. King, sent Jezebel this statement:
I can assure you that Dre’s August 2015 apology for things he did decades ago was not in any way directed to Michel’le. Her false claims of being a victim arose for the first time more than 25 years after their relationship ended, coinciding with the success of Straight Outta Compton and her own efforts to sell a life story.
Lifetime had no comment when asked to respond to Dre’s lawsuit threat. Surviving Compton is scheduled to air Saturday at 8 p.m. A condensed and edited transcript of my chat with Michel’le is below
Jezebel: What do you think about this movie? Are you happy with how it turned out?
Michel’le: Well, I haven’t seen it in its entirety. I had to walk out of the screening. I couldn’t take it. It’s brutal, it’s kinda hard to watch. I’m sitting there with Rhyon Brown, the star, and I’m pinching her and grabbing her and leaning on her shoulder, but I wanted her to enjoy it so I removed myself.
It seems like a movie about abuse should be hard to watch. Did it feel accurate?
Yeah, but when I was in it—back 25 years ago—I couldn’t see myself. So to see myself was like oh my god. I couldn’t do it.
How did translating your experience to the screen work? Did Dianne Houston, the screenwriter, interview you at length?
Yeah, I sat with her for weeks, just giving her different stories of my life and she pick and chose what she thought was exciting. That’s what she does. I did a lot of it by tape, and she did a lot of writing as I was talking, and she just came back with this incredible script. Of course, we went through drafts and drafts, but at the end of the day, I was happy. I was just trying to answer a lot of the questions I’ve been asked for twenty something years—”How did you get from Ruthless to Death Row, from Dr. Dre to Suge Knight?”
The accuracy is as best as I can remember it. You know, we only had 80 minutes to talk about 20 years of my life, and we had to compress and combine and manipulate. I wanted so much in there, and I think what we captured, with the story that we were trying to get across, I think we nailed it.
This seems intended as an answer to Straight Outta Compton.
Straight Outta Compton was Dre’s version of his life, of how he saw it. So, the version that I got from Dre was he left me out which allowed me to tell you my story.
One of the most shocking things about it was the final title card that read: “Dr. Dre, through his attorney, denies abusing Michel’le and challenges her credibility.” So he retracted his apology?
That’s what it looked like to me. Did it look like that to you? First of all, he didn’t apologize to me. He apologized to the public. So why would you do that? That makes no sense. We thought [the letter from Dre’s attorney] was hilarious. I loved it. I thought, “This could not have closed the movie any better.” It’s like an oxymoron. I couldn’t believe it. I had them read it to me three times.
Watching this movie, I can’t help but think that he’s a bad person.
Well, you know, I’m telling a story that started 27 years ago. I’ve changed. In my prayers, I’m hoping that he has as well. I’m still listening to his music. My children love his music. I just hope we grow from it. It’s a part of life—we have to go through experiences and we did. But you can’t write me out of history.
The part of the movie that portrays the recording of “Something in My Heart” has you singing it under great duress. Dre was berating you in front of people. Is that how it really went down?
Yeah. I didn’t know how to make rap music, Dre didn’t know how to make R&B music. He would send me home with beats. I had to come up with the melody. I had to give him the idea: “This is what I hear.” I didn’t quite have the whole hook [of “Something in My Heart”] and he was frustrated. He was like, “Another take.” He did not have the patience for doing vocals. He was furious. I cried in that booth, and that’s why you can feel “Something in My Heart,” ‘cause I was literally in tears.
You sing the hell out of that song. Did Dre’s awfulness make the song even better?
Ike and Tina did it! I’m not mad at the process, because that’s what was supposed to happen. It was organic. If that’s what was going to get that work done for that day, then so be it.
In that “Something in My Heart” scene and elsewhere in the movie, the guys from NWA watch Dre berate you and drag you around. Were they complicit?
Eazy E and the D.O.C. were the only two that were vocal—I guess because people want to mind their own business. I don’t fault them. They would just go, “I’m out,” and that was cool. What were they to say? If I was allowing this, and I had been with this man, and I was going to come in tomorrow morning anyway, why should they break up their friendships with him? That’s the best way I can analyze why nobody around me helped me. That’s why I didn’t cry for help. It was normal.
It was surprising because it seems like they were your friends otherwise and and if I saw my friend getting dragged around I’d say something.
It was just normal and they didn’t do anything to me.
Do you think the members of N.W.A. were misogynists? Many accused them of being so from listening to their music, you were actually there and you actually knew them.
I can’t speak for all of them. What I learned later is that that’s what they said Dre had become, but as far as the NWA guys, I didn’t get that. I can’t answer that for any of the other guys. They were very sweet. Like Pac… he talked bad about women, but he treated them like queens. That’s hard to answer. I don’t know if that was something in Dre’s subconscious that he didn’t understand and maybe now he understands it today. It’s hard, but in hindsight you can say anything.
How does it feel to release this?
I’m happy. I’m in a good place. I only fear the universe. Some people call him God. He may be a her. I don’t know, but I don’t fear man at this point at all. So…that’s just me.