'Welcome To Death Row,' New York

Film chronicling rise and fall of label and 'Suge' Knight screened; director says death threats won't stop him

NEW YORK — Celebrities such as model Tyson Beckford, producer Stevie J., and singers Coko and Dionne Warwick were in attendance Thursday night in Tribeca for a screening of the controversial documentary "Welcome to Death Row."

Co-executive-produced and directed by S. Leigh Savidge, the film focuses on the rise and fall of Death Row Records, depicting the label's incarcerated CEO, Marion "Suge" Knight, as a maniacal bully with a penchant for abusing his employees.

In addition to featuring candid film and video, news footage, and interviews with Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Knight himself, several former artists and staff members, including Nate Dogg and RBX, testify to Knight's alleged heavy-handed tactics in the documentary.

"At the time when a lot of the initial interviews were done, the government was investigating Death Row," said Savidge, who is also CEO/Founder of Xenon Pictures, the company releasing the film. "There was grave, grave concern. They had been approached by the FBI [who] were looking to get [the interviewees] to say things about Death Row. In a sense, to connect Death Row to drug money. It was a tremendous amount of fear we faced in getting people to talk when we first started off."

Some of the movie's most revealing scenes involve imprisoned drug kingpin Michael "Harry O" Harris. The movie supports Harris' claims that, with the help of attorney David Kenner, he gave Knight money to get Death Row off the ground. Harris is now suing Knight for money he says is owed to him. Harris' wife, Lydia, serves as the movie's other co-executive producer and was the catalyst for the production, Savidge said.

"It was crucial to strike a deal with Lydia Harris," Savidge began. "You've got to look at how you get this story. You either go to Suge Knight, or you go to the guys that Suge Knight fears the most. You go to Mike Harris.

"Most of the people who you see in the film have a certain degree of loyalty to Mike," he continued. "The appearance of [Lydia] on the set [when the interviewees were] doing those interviews gave them a since of comfort at a time when no one else would give them comfort."

Introduced to Lydia Harris in 1998, Savidge was shown documents that "definitively connect her husband to the beginning of Death Row Records," he said. After meeting with Michael Harris in prison, the filmmaker became more intrigued.

"I love this story," Savidge said. "If you go into film, anybody that wants to succeed in the business is looking for the great American story. That's what this was. You have to factor in the danger. Danger is part of this situation."

That danger includes constant death threats made to Savidge by those who "don't want the film to be seen," he said. Knight himself has been vocal about his disdain for the movie, saying only he can tell the real story behind Death Row.

"There are things that flash before you. I'm not somebody who sits at home at night and racks up fear about what's going to happen to me," Savidge said. "That's either a good thing or not a good thing, but nothing is gonna stop me from telling this story and showing it to people and letting people get a sense of perspective on what happened."

Xenon, the independent distribution company behind films such as "Tha Eastsidaz" starring Snoop and his rhyme protégés, hopes to get "Welcome to Death Row" in theaters by summer.