The Lifetime Channel and gangsta rap hardly seem like cultural aspects that would have anything to do with each other. However, the two collide when the network (“for women”) airs “Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge, & Michel’le.”
“Surviving Compton” was released in 2016 and if audiences had not heard of it, that is likely due to a decided lack of fanfare. On the surface it is an unpopular story. The member of a successful, groundbreaking rap group is portrayed as a womanizing abuser who cannot speak his son’s name. This is not what “Straight Outta Compton” would have shown audiences, and in fact, did not. But this movie is different.
“Surviving Compton”: Dre and Michel’le’s “love” story
When Michel’le is overheard singing and is brought to a studio where NWA is recording to add some melody to the track, her speaking voice is mocked. The voice she speaks with is a super-high one that likens comparisons to Minnie Mouse. Her powerhouse singing voice is another story. When she starts singing, the doubting rappers stop laughing and start listening, their mouths agape. Shortly thereafter, she begins a tumult-filled relationship with Dre. According to Michel’le’s version of events, the rapper turned mogul beat her frequently.
When she finally leaves Dre and the house they shared, Michel’le is taken under the wing of notorious record label owner, Suge Knight. Before long, Michel’le becomes his lover. While he is in prison, Suge pays Michel’le $30,000 a month to run Death Row Records. This is probably not the story that audiences were expecting. In some regards, “Surviving Compton” offers audiences a “happily-ever-after” ending because the protagonist escapes. But because it seems to have taken her so long to do so, some audiences might be too exhausted to cheer for her ultimate survival.
A side note: Michel’le did marry Suge Knight while he was in prison. They divorced after six years.
“Surviving Compton”: a story weirdly told
This movie does not get rave reviews, but that does not prevent it from getting interesting. Instead of “Surviving Compton” being a traditional biopic with the actual characters never appearing onscreen, this one allows Michel’le to freeze the action by appearing in scenes and addressing the audience. Perhaps people were put off by Michel’le’s speaking voice, which is unfortunate.
But audiences are also treated to the home environment in which Michel’le was raised. One in which her mother informed her that to avoid a man hitting her, a woman should learn not to make him mad. The sentiment could send waves of nausea through a modern woman. Later, when the sentiment is retracted by her mother after the truth is learned about the beatings, it elicits a sigh of relief from audiences. Still, the retraction seems to come too late.
What audiences have to cheer for, then, is the triumph embodied by Michel’le’s voice. When she sings, the movie picks up. If her troubled relationships kept her from becoming a bigger star, that is yet another tragedy depicted in “Surviving Compton.” For those who missed Michel’le in the late 1980s, her best known songs “No More Lies” and “Nicety” are available on Spotify.
“Surviving Compton” is necessary viewing for those who wanted more from the era of NWA depicted in “Straight Outta Compton.” The fact that it is a so-called “women’s story” should not change the urgency of its message.