Everything was all good just a year ago. In 2015, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton had just become the highest-grossing music biopic of all time and Dr. Dre was well on his way to becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire. But the world is looking at the legacy of N.W.A. and its super producer a little differently after Lifetime’s Michel’le biopic, Surviving Compton, premiered this weekend.
Straight Outta Compton was the rare Hollywood story that was told by its subjects (Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were co-producers and contributed to the writing, directing and soundtrack), so viewers mostly trusted its historical accuracy. But Surviving Compton exposed some of the blockbuster’s blind spots. Mainly, the erasure of the pint-sized, pixie-voiced woman who was present for the rise and fall of both Ruthless Records and Death Row Records.
Before Saturday’s premiere of Surviving Compton, Michel’le had been written off as the one-hit-wonder who managed to get knocked up by both Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. But by sharing her account of one of the most influential periods in hip-hop, she re-wrote the history books — more accurately, she corrected the record — and challenged us to take a closer look at a narrative we may have never given a second thought.
Michel’le’s version spans Dr. Dre’s rise from DJ in the World Class Wrecking Crew, to producer of N.W.A., to co-founder of Death Row and finally, mastermind of Aftermath. But while Michel’le has been vocal about Dre’s physical and emotional abuse for about two decades now, the biopic cut deeper than Lifetime’s usual brand of victim-porn. It showed the struggles of a single Black woman doing her best to navigate an industry that was built to prey on the Black men she was subservient to.
The film obviously had its flaws. From the one-dimensional portrayal of Dr. Dre as a monster (with no exploration of the factors that contributed to his abuse) to the excessively eye-browed 2Pac impersonator, it’s not worthy of any Emmy noms or deep critical analysis. But as the Lifetime movie trended Saturday night, garnering far less jokes than previous productions about Aaliyah and TLC, its impact was clear.
Many on social media began openly reconsidering the legacy of one of music’s greatest producers. And domestic abuse was highlighted as an issue that needs to be addressed in all segments of society. Especially those that privilege men over women. Like most cultures worldwide, hip-hop’s status quo still denies its misogyny with the same fervor America denies its racism. This movie’s ultimate impact shouldn’t be about destroying the legacy of Dr. Dre, but repairing the toxic aspects of our culture and building a greater legacy for tomorrow.
These tough conversations are the first steps to making a change, but the most important lesson we can learn from Surviving Compton is the power we all stand to gain by reclaiming our personal narratives. Michel’le rewrote history by telling her story on her own terms. And her biopic continues a trend of marginalized people leaving their mark on the record in spite of the giant machines that seek to erase them and retrace the status quo.
Whether these overlooked stories are retold in blockbusters like Straight Outta Compton, indies like Birth Of A Nation, or straight-to-TV movies like Surviving Compton, the lesson remains the same. History is just someone’s version of reality — usually the one who lived long enough to tell it. With Surviving Compton, Michel’le proved that she is still standing and that she refuses to be cut from the record. That’s a true survivor.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter