Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le couldn’t have aired at a more befitting time, at the centre of Domestic Violence Awareness month. The made-for-tv film, which premiered on Lifetime 15th October, chronicled the story of softly spoken Michel’le and her rise to fame. However, the focal points of the film were her high profile relationships with Dr Dre and Suge Knight, respectively, which soon overshadowed her success and forced her into a life of violence and substance abuse.
Michel’le Toussaint is an R&B singer and songwriter who got her start in the industry providing backing vocals for World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s 1987 hit ‘Turn Off The Lights’, after DJ Alonzo Williams coincendently discovered her singing in a store she was employed at. This opportunity led to her swiftly being signed to Eazy E’s Ruthless Records. Two years later she released her self-titled debut album, produced by then boyfriend Dr Dre, which contained hits ‘Nicety’, ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Something In My Heart’ which catapulted her to superstardom.
During that time, Dr Dre was producing the majority of the labels high selling projects, and became frustrated with the label, due to financial disagreements. Label head Suge Knight, of Death Row Records, went to extreme lengths to get Eazy E to sign Dre over to him. Once he succeeded, he took rapper The D.O.C and Michel’le with him.
The film begins with a young Michel’le and her grandmother, who she affectionately calls “Mimi”, strolling through the rough neighbourhood of South Central where ‘cops [busted] brothers because they were black...gangs [replaced] families...and it seemed like somebody was always getting hit.’ They eventually pass a couple having a domestic dispute outside of their home – the man aggressively yelling and continuously slapping the woman. Little Michel’le looks on in disgust, declaring ‘Mimi when I get grown I ain’t never gonna let a man put his hands on me like that.’ The grandmother dismisses her comment, replying ‘so you say. Man hits a woman it’s cos his hands are working faster than his brain – a woman might be smarter but she’s still gon get hit,’ effectively saying it’s in a man’s nature to behave this way. We are then taken to Michel’le’s house, where another female counterpart states ‘never make a man want to hit you,’ inadvertently saying women have to act a certain way in order for a man to control their temper and if a man uses violence as a way to express his anger, it’s the woman’s fault for not acting in order. She continues ‘if you do (make a man want to hit you), you fix it, and fix yourself fast.’
These ideas came at a time where women weren’t as empowered or independent as they are in today’s era, due to the patriarchal society they lived in. Men were typically the breadwinners and sole providers (as women were paid much less) offering security, shelter and stability, therefore women relied on them – ‘trading freedom for security and power.’ This financial power made men think they could control their partner and dictate every thought and decision she made, causing their significant other to feel inadequate without them. This cycle of dependency was carried down from generation to generation, which is why the majority of women had a hard time breaking free from these sad excuses of ‘men’ and creating an independent life for themselves – they were physically and mentally broken down. Michel’le narrates, saying our choices as adults are due to what we are taught as a child. She was conditioned into believing abusive relationships were normal and “if you love him you’ll put up with it, think of it as a job that pays you well...hang in there”, so when she entered her first relationship with Dr Dre that is exactly what she’d done. She “[hung] in there”.
A Gradual Process
In the movie, Michel’le declares she “doesn’t know exactly why she stayed but she was grateful Dre loved her” and goes on to say she “didn’t understand love” and “kindness was new”, implying her self esteem wasn’t strong enough for her to understand her worth. Add that to how her grandmother conditioned her, she stayed in this horrifying relationship. Michel’le later used prescription drugs and alcohol in order to numb her feelings during this traumatic experience, saying she was “trapped” and “drugs were [her] new best friend”. Drugs were a form of escapism for her, allowing her to take “a long overdue vacation away from life, from reality”. Domestic Violence is a taboo subject and sadly, victims of this abuse hide their pain and carry a secret shame. To many outsiders looking in it seems simple, they say ignorant statements such as “why don’t you leave? You must enjoy it if you continue to stay...why do you keep going back?” - not understanding that these women have been mentally and physically torn apart by the person they love. There are a range of emotional, physical, financial, social and spiritual constraints to overcome and it’s a gradual process to leave relationships of this nature. First there is denial: often an abused woman would find it difficult to classify herself as a victim of abuse, often placing the blame on the “drink and the drugs” or the “stress of his family and his job”, naturally wanting to believe the best in their significant other. Next comes hope followed by guilt: holding on to the hope that these men they’re in love with will change and clinging on to the “good times” they once had.
It’s difficult letting go of the dreams she once had for their future together and even more difficult when there are kids involved because she feels guilty for ruining the family unit. The guilt also comes from the abusers shifting the blame, telling these women they “provoked it” and “deserved it” – essentially making these women feel responsible for the horrifying experience. This is followed by feelings of shame: being subjected to this abuse long term is a demeaning experience, often making victims feel less of a person. The shame may come from these women feeling as though they chose the wrong person or believing the fault lies within them. Security and practicality is also a reason some women may stay, especially if young children are involved or if the woman has a disability. She may not have the resources to provide for herself so she stays for financial security and shelter, believing that it’s worth tolerating this abuse in order to live in a financially stable environment. The practicality factor comes in because these women may not have a place to go, due to their partner isolating them from family and friends. They may also feel it’s safer to stay rather than risk angering him more, especially if he’s been threatening towards the kids. Even if she did leave there’s no guarantee she’d be free as she’d be in constant fear, looking over her shoulder and worrying she’d be tracked down, stalked and possibly even attacked – the fear and emotional/mental damage still plays a big part. Statistics show, more of these women are killed by these abusive men after they have left the relationship.
Finding Her Strength
It wasn’t until rehab Michel’le finally found “the strength she never had”, saying recovery allowed her to reflect on her life and she “didn’t find a whole lot that made [her] happy”. She implies she always felt weak, which again, reinforces the reason she endured these relationships. When her relationship with Suge Knight was almost headed in the same direction, she showed amazing strength, finally standing up for herself and not allowing herself to be controlled, as she became acquainted with her self-worth, “you gave me hell dressed up in dollar bills”, she declared. Her grandmother also later admitted she taught Michel’le the “wrong things about men” as “today’s women got to stand up for herself.”
Rap & Misogyny
The movie also covered the idea that women in particular were victims of rap music, as they were just “bitches to be slapped and hoes to be passed around”. Michel’le says for centuries women have been “singing their pain, using their voices to let the world know what hurt them”, but in the predominantly male rap culture, there weren’t any “women’s voices to anchor their truths...rap was about rage not beauty. Rap hated most women cos it had to hurt somebody”.
Misogyny in rap music has long been a topic of conversation. In a 2015 interview, Kanye West admitted rap culture was misogynistic saying the music and the lyrics are an outlet for black men who are belittled in their daily lives, be it at their job, by the police or by a woman, so they lash out at women in order to feel validated
One of the most sentimental moments in the movie was when Michel’le was cradling her baby girl saying, “baby you deserve so much better than this world of rap and rage...this is not for you...don’t ever let anybody hit you, and don’t ever trade your freedom for security or power. You gotta own yourself baby”.
The contrast between last summer’s box office hit ‘Straight Outta Compton’ which painted Dre as a hero and Michel’le’s ‘Surviving Compton’ has been stark. Since the biopic aired, Dr Dre has been in the firing line of horrified twitter users worldwide, shocked by the abuse depicted in the film. Many users mocked the producer/businessman’s well known headphone brand ‘Beats by Dre’, asserting ‘Beats by Dre has a whole new meaning’, adding he was a ‘deadbeat dad and a woman beater.’ With his reputation on the line, Dr Dre has since threatened to sue Sony pictures for releasing a film which paints him as this violent woman beater but in an age of social media the damage has already been done. Has Dre’s image been tarnished forever? Will this affect his future business partnerships? Only time will tell.
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