The one-time R&B star (1989’s “No More Lies”) dated Dr. Dre in the early 1990s, as he and N.W.A. turned into superstars (they had a son in 1991) and later married Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight, with whom she had a daughter in 2002 (they divorced in 2005).
But despite her presence in their inner circle at the time (she was signed to N.W.A. member Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, and Dre produced her album), Michel’le was conspicuously absent from last year’s hit film “Straight Outta Compton.”
“I was told they did cast me and did shoot scenes with [my character], but Dr. Dre chose to not have it in the movie,” Michel’le told IndieWire. “But that allowed me to speak my truth. That was his story.”
“Surviving Compton” executive producer Leslie Greif first met Michel’le when she starred on TV One’s “R&B Divas,” which his company, Thinkfactory, produced. Michel’le shared some of her personal stories on the show, which led them at the time to kick around film ideas. But then came “Straight Outta Compton,” which suddenly pushed her story to the front burner.
“There were no women in ‘Straight Outta Compton,'” Greif said. “The only women were objectified girls to be passed around. [Ruthless Records co-founder] Jerry Heller was a friend, and he told me that she was the linchpin between all of these guys. She lived it. Her story is very compelling and rather dramatic, about a woman who grew up in a very difficult environment.”
Michel’le has been public in describing how Dr. Dre abused her, and in “Surviving Compton,” he is seen attacking her character (played by Rhyon Nicole Brown) and pulling a gun on her.
“In the beginning it re-opened wounds,” Michel’le said of the movie, which she was heavily involved with as a producer. “People always think that domestic abuse is something that you live with and get over. But no. You have mental scars. I didn’t realize how I wasn’t over it.”
Greif said he saw Michel’le struggle with exploring her past for the film. “She couldn’t watch the movie,” he said. “She walked out of the first screening because it was too tough for her. Talking about it and then seeing it and re-living it was tough. The scene where she was beaten in bed, she fell apart on the set. This is bringing back a lot of a life that she had almost locked away.”
Nonetheless, Michel’le now talks of “closure.”
“This is no joke,” she said. “I would never want anyone to live this life. I’m watching myself, when I watched them portray me and Dr. Dre and it touched me in different way… it was a very eye-opening experience. I didn’t see it that way [at the time]. I thought it was just normal for me.”
Michel’le said her son hasn’t seen “Surviving Compton,” but she used it as a learning tool for her daughter, who has seen it. “She understood it,” she said. “I’m glad I’m teaching her something to not do and not want. I knew she understood, she doesn’t have to live my life.”
Dr. Dre, on the other hand, has reportedly sent warning letters to Sony Pictures TV (which produced the film with Thinkfactory) and Lifetime. “I heard Sony said they had vetted the film and stand by it, and will not allow Michel’le’s voice to be silenced,” Greif said. “They’re supporting this picture… These are not new stories. Dr. Dre and Suge Knight have not seen the film to my knowledge, and are presupposing what they did and how it might make them appear on screen.”
Said Michel’le: “I was there. I know what I went through.”
The singer recorded all of the music for the show, which was then lip-synched by Brown. She also appears throughout the movie to react to some of the action. Michel’le resisted the idea at first, but eventually signed on to the idea of speaking personally to a new generation of women.
“The implication is, ‘yes, I’m watching what happened to me,'” Greif said. “I think it makes it very unique and gives it a layer of verisimilitude that you don’t normally get in a biopic.”
To get an authentic look, Peter Menzies Jr., who just served as cinematographer on the Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me,” did the same for “Surviving Compton.” Also, “All Eyez on Me” production designer Derek Hill joined the Lifetime movie in a similar role.
“Lifetime asked me to do a departure from what is considered the ‘Lifetime movie,'” Greif said. “This movie feels like an indie feature. All the color, the way it’s shot, the editing, the score, it’s like a theatrical airing on television.”
“Surviving Compton” was directed by Janice Cooke, written by Dianne Houston and edited by Sandy Pereira – all women. “I wanted to have the movie told from the female perspective, the creative drive to be told by women and have them manage the story,” Greif said. “It really gave the film a great window where women were telling a woman’s story, rather than men trying to interpret her story.”
“Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le” premieres Saturday, October 15 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.