“Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Girl, why you ain’t in they movie? You was there. You was down with Ruthless Records right along with them boys,’” Michel’le Toussaint informs us in her intro to her Lifetime biopic, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le.
Straight Outta Compton is the movie to which Michel’le, as she is best-known, refers. To date, the N.W.A biopic has made over $200 million worldwide. In the film, “homeboy conquering heroes,” as she calls them—O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Marion “Suge” Knight—are particularly prominent. But you better believe Michel’le was there, professionally and personally. Not only did she sing the hook on Dr. Dre’s first notable hit, “Before You Turn Off the Lights,” back in 1988, when he was with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, but she was his girlfriend and a musical collaborator. Eventually she would have a child with him and, later, also with his friend-turned-nemesis Suge Knight.
“That movie ain’t about me,” she continues, referring to her erasure and, really, the larger erasure of girls and women like her from these tales of urban strife that reach larger audiences. “That’s them telling the story they want to tell. History gets told by the winners. I got my own history, my own story about a girl from the hood. I am Michel’le,” she asserts as she properly reinserts black girls back into this story, giving them proper presence and, most important, a voice.
Most noted in criticisms of Straight Outta Compton is the glaring absence of early allegations of Dr. Dre’s physical assaults against women, particularly his infamous beatdown of TV personality and rapper Dee Barnes of the popular hip-hop show Pump It Up in 1991. As those inquiries got louder, Dr. Dre’s personal relationships came under greater scrutiny, and his alleged physical assault of Michel’le got mainstream attention. So much so that Dr. Dre issued an apology, with Michel’le even being quoted in the New York Times story covering it.
“I’ve been talking about my abuse for many, many years, but it has not gotten any ears until now,” Michel’le told the Times. Well, Lifetime must have been listening and turned the spotlight all the way up on her, and we may all be the better for it. Surviving Compton—directed by Janice Cooke, a veteran TV director and producer, and written by Dianne Houston, a Howard alum who comes from theater—is much more entertaining and deeper than most would expect. It has real gravitas. Michel’le narrates the film and even pops into its narrative from time to time, giving it an air of both “herstory” and a cautionary tale.
Once Michel’le formally introduces the film, it gets real immediately, going all the way back to when she was a little girl growing up in a neighborhood where police brutality and the physical assault of women surrounded her. Police brutality and brutality against women are purposely linked. By doing so, it is clear that Michel’le’s story isn’t unique but instead is a cycle. When she, as a little girl, proclaims that no man will ever put his hands on her when she grows up, her grandmother, whom she calls Meme (played quite ably by Donna Biscoe), essentially tells her that black men hitting black women is just how things are. As lofty as it may seem, Surviving Compton aims to raise awareness of that cycle without ever sacrificing the core story.
We’re sucked into the good times rather quickly. Curtis Hamilton plays Dr. Dre as good-looking and smooth-talking, so we easily understand how the squeaky-voiced Michel’le, portrayed so innocently by Rhyon Nicole Brown, got swept away. We understand how she could still be down even after learning Dre already had baby mamas and multiple kids. We are also caught as off guard as she was when, during a drunken stupor, Dre’s fists violently awaken Michel’le in their bedroom. Initially we assume that Dre’s late-night arrival will result in drunken sex. Never are we prepared for Dre to beat Michel’le so brutally. It’s startling.
“Everyone said I should have left then. Should have got out while I still had one eye working. He was crying, he was crying,” a real-life Michel’le says, teary-eyed, “but I couldn’t leave Dre then. I kept hearing Meme telling me how it was in a man’s nature to hurt the one he loved.”
Standing alongside her TV-film self as she tries to use makeup to hide the ugliness, Michel’le, in Surviving Compton, delivers a brilliant and searing commentary on rap’s unsettling allegiance to misogyny:
Women been singing their pain for as long as there’s been music. Women’s voices let the world know exactly what hurt them and why. But, in rap, the women stopped singing and without their voices to anchor their truths, the women were just bitches to be slapped and/or hoes to be passed around. Rap was about rage, not beauty. Rap hated most women because it had to hurt somebody, and it did.
Surviving Compton is full of the tea that shows the complication of being a pawn caught between two well-known men’s egos and forces way beyond your control.
There’s a reason that Michel’le’s hits “No More Lies” and “Something in My Heart” still resonate almost 30 years later. Urban-black-girl trauma is very real, and Surviving Compton is a case in point. Michel’le’s harrowing tale of unlikely survival may not change the world overnight, but it thankfully steers the conversation in the right direction.
Black girls may be magic, but black boys get all the shine and far too often aren’t held accountable for the hurt they cause along the way.
Dr. Dre is reportedly backpedaling, denying that he ever physically abused Michel’le, and issued a cease and desist order through his legal team to stop the film. Surviving Compton doesn’t take away from his notable accomplishments in music in the least. As Michel’le tells Jerry Heller in the film, “Life ain’t perfect, but all dreams cost something.”
Surviving Compton shows the price that not just one woman paid but far too many black girls are still paying.
Surviving Compton premieres on Lifetime Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. ET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.