What Lawsuits Over N.W.A, TLC Biopics Say About the Role of Artist Managers

Exploitation is becoming a tricky subject in the genre of the musician docudrama.
Andrew Toth/FilmMagic

The 1980s rap group N.W.A and the 1990s R&B group TLC have a few things in common.

Both groups got biopic treatment in Straight Outta Compton and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, respectively. Both films have triggered defamation lawsuits from former managers upset with their portrayals as the villain. Does this tension arise from the music biopic genre's penchant for using managers as convenient foils to show artists overcoming adversity? Or are these unfavorable representations a fair depiction of the troubling power dynamics in the music industry? Who exactly is being exploited?

On Friday, former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller hit Universal with a $110 million lawsuit that objects to the suggestion he withheld money from Ice Cube and was chowing down on lobster brunches while contracts were being finalized. That's not too different than former TLC manager Perri "Pebbles" Reid's own $40 million lawsuit filed in April 2014 against Viacom over TLC's VH1 biopic in which she allegedly was shown pressuring group members to sign contracts without reading them, controlling attorneys and accountants for the group, and underpaying Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas.

The makers of Straight Outta Compton haven't responded yet to the lawsuit. It's too early.

But in its motion to dismiss, Viacom hinted at some larger states that could indeed inform the dispute over Straight Outta Compton too. The defendant claims that its work is a docudrama — not a documentary — and that the judge needs to analyze CrazySexyCool in this context.

"Consistent with the docudrama genre — which includes Selma, The Social Network, Ray, Walk the Line, What's Love Got To Do With It?, and many others — the Movie revisits TLC's well-known and widely-reported story," stated Viacom. "From the first line of the film — 'Here's what I remember' — it is a story told from the perspective of the two surviving members of TLC, who produced and cooperated fully in the development of the Movie. The Movie employs actresses, creates dialogue, telescopes events and uses composite characters, all while accurately maintaining the essence of TLC's story."

On Friday, Reid submitted her own memorandum in opposition to a motion for summary judgment. Her legal brief (read here) accepts that the movie was a docudrama, but says it was "intended to convey the truth and was publicly advertised as being a true story."

Now the question for the judge is whether the work is susceptible to defamatory meaning. Or at least whether it's a triable question that should be brought to a jury for determination.

Reid says that the TLC biopic is defamatory per se because "it harms her in her profession." She points out how viewer comments' reflect how she was presented as the conniving and dishonest figure in the work.

Heller is coming to court with basically the same argument and like the looming litigation over Straight Outta Compton, some of the analysis of CrazySexyCool will turn on how viewers interpret how deals get done in the entertainment realm.

For example, Viacom is arguing that it had a right to compress and telescope events like contract signings into a single scene to fit into a two-hour picture, and that just because CrazySexyCool didn't "show TLC reading their contracts does not mean it implies that Pebbles stopped them from reading them."

In her latest legal brief, Reid retorts that "the movie is not a mere collapsing of the truth," but rather a change of "fact to fiction." She asserts there's harm done when she is presented discussing contracts in a scene, issuing a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum and leaving TLC members clueless about the contents. There's also attention paid to what viewers are likely to understand about musician finances. As Reid's brief puts it, "At the summary judgment stage, the question is whether a reasonable juror could decide whether $25 per week to 'cover food and expenses' is substantially the same as someone making at least $75,000 per year ... " 

The two lawsuits aren't just about how to separate reality and fiction. In order to prevail, the plaintiffs need to show actual malice on the part of the producers. Heller's lawsuit is very vague on this prong, asserting merely that Compton defendants "utterly failed to investigate facts prior to publishing these statements in the Film," that they showed a "reckless disregard or lack of concern for the truth of said statements."

Since Straight Outta Compton happened through the cooperation of N.W.A members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the estate of Eazy E, it wouldn't be crazy at all to think that Heller will eventually aim to support a claim of actual malice in a fashion similar to what Reid is doing. 

While Viacom might be counting the participation of T-Boz and Chilli as a point in its favor — touting "a story told from the perspective of the two surviving members" — Reid is now arguing that reliance on unreliable sources can be evidence of malice.  "Viacom's sole sources were T-Boz and Chilli, who Viacom knew were biased against Plaintiff," states Reid's memo. "Specifically, Viacom was aware that TLC and Plaintiff had a 'degraded' relationship and that the views of T-Boz and Chilli were not objective with regard to Plaintiff."

Both Heller and Reid present lawsuits suggesting that biopics should be particularly careful when it comes to treating former industry associates of the musicians. Of course, there's also the possibility that business managers deserve the very scorn they are getting in these on-screen treatments. Viacom is certainly defending the "substantial truth" of its work. As litigation over Straight Outta Compton commences, one can be equally certain of an extensive investigation of Heller's role in the affairs of the iconic rap group.

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