By Gregory Crofton
“American Dream / American Knightmare” explores the dark and twisted psyche of Marion “Suge” Knight, one of the founders of Death Row Records, home to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog in the early 90s.
This 85-minute doc, available only on Showtime since its release in 2018, needs to be seen by more people because it’s a fascinating conversation between two powerful American Black men — director Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua and Knight.
The two got together to talk on camera a number of times in 2011 and 2012, sometimes at a nice restaurant, other times aboard a yacht. You learn how Knight’s experience growing up in the ‘ghetto’ defined him, and hear about his brief time playing football in the NFL for the Rams.
Most importantly, Fuqua is allowed to interview Suge’s (pronounced “Sug” short for Sugar Bear) father, mother and uncles, which provides true perspective on his character.
Aiming to balance the film, a tall order, news reports about Knight’s criminal history are laced into the storyline. His worst offense was his most recent, an intentional and fatal hit-and-run in 2015. The crime was related to “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie about the rap group N.W.A., in production close to where the murder took place.
Fuqua’s documentary also examines the shooting of Tupac Shakur, another superstar artist that worked for Death Row. Knight says the excitement of it being a Vegas fight night touched off the series of events that followed.
Their crew, Shakur in particular, was so hyped after a Tyson fight they decided to jump Orlando Anderson, a member of the L.A. Crips, in the lobby of the MGM.
Hours after the brawl, Shakur left his girlfriend Kidada Jones (the daughter of producer Quincy Jones) behind at the casino hotel and headed for Club 662, a spot owned by Knight.
Shakur was gunned down on the way there likely by Anderson as he rode in the front passenger seat of Suge’s BMW. The world famous rapper died in the hospital six days later at the age of 25.
I watched this film when it was first released. When I saw it again recently, it felt more important. I got the sense Fuqua was speaking to a gangster as notorious in his own way as Al Capone. Maybe it’s because Knight, now four years later, is serving 28 years in prison for killing a man with his SUV, running over him twice. The act was captured on surveillance video. You can see it here.
In “American Dream / American Knightmare” when they go to Vegas to visit the location of the shooting, the director asks Knight if he had anything to do with it. Lighting a blunt, Suge says:
“I’m the only person that lost when Pac moved on. Not only did I lose the idea of a friend you can have, or a little brother you can have — Pac was one of those incredible artists. I know for a fact he worth way more alive than dead.”
The screen then goes black. You can hear the blink of hazard lights. Suge is driving. He pulls over, opens the door, and vomits several times on the pavement.
Is he drunk driving? He was drinking throughout most of the film. Or is he upset about Shakur’s death?
Death Row Records was doomed by the violence and fear Knight deployed to launch the label in 1991. Shakur’s death, and then Biggie’s murder six month’s later, would mean much harder times for Death Row. The label eventually sold at auction for $18 million in 2009.
Earlier this year Snoop Dog became its owner for an undisclosed price.
The “street” was what made Death Row great in many ways. Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” a Death Row record, is a masterpiece that defined its era. But the “street” also turned Knight’s dream into a prison cell.
“They blew his mother fucking dome off right then and there, ‘Ba-rap'” said Suge, recalling a murder he witnessed as a youngster in his hometown of Compton. “I was right there.”
Watch the trailer below.