BET+’s ‘First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story’ unfolds the story of a Detroit-based middle-class woman who crosses paths with Harry, the leader of an illicit drug syndicate, in the 1980s. Under Harry’s guidance, she is initiated into the world of illegal drug trade, providing her with a firsthand experience of its enticing allure, characterized by glamor and wealth. As her involvement deepens, she becomes deeply enmeshed in the trade. However, when Harry is eventually apprehended and imprisoned, she embarks on her journey, with the support of a new, youthful confidant named Southwest T, to navigate the complex and perilous world of the underground drug business.
Under the direction of Vivica A. Fox, the film delves into the life journey of Tonesa Welch and her eventual emergence as the “First Lady” within the Black Mafia Family (BMF). The film boasts an exceptional ensemble cast, with Michelle Mitchenor taking on the role of Tonesa Welch, and features other accomplished actors such as Tobias Truvillion, Tristin Fazekas, and Faith Malonte. For those intrigued by the film’s authenticity and whether it draws from real-life events, we have all the information you seek. Let’s get started!
Is First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story a True Story?
Yes, ‘First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story’ depicts the real-life tale of Tonesa Welch in a biographical format, chronicling the series of events that shaped the remarkable journey of Tonesa Welch, including her rise, fall, and eventual redemption. While the Starz TV series ‘BMF’ explores aspects of her story, this film, written by Gabrielle Collins and Tressa Azarel Smallwood, exclusively concentrates on Tonesa and her odyssey. Tonesa’s upbringing took place in a middle-class Detroit neighborhood, where she harbored ambitious aspirations and yearned for a life beyond the limits of her surroundings.
She crossed paths with Harry, who was a prominent figure in a drug organization. However, when Harry was apprehended by law enforcement, Tonesa found companionship in Terry Lee Flenory, who was more widely recognized as Southwest Tee. Southwest Tee, along with Demetrius Edward “Big Meech” Flenory, co-founded the Black Mafia Family (BMF) back in 1985. They had successfully established a vast cocaine distribution network across the United States, leveraging their connections with a Los Angeles-based drug source and direct ties to Mexican drug cartels.
In the early 2000s, the Black Mafia Family, led by Demetrius Flenory, ventured into the hip-hop music industry through BMF Entertainment, which served as a front organization for money laundering. Their extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle became legendary, adding to their notoriety. Tonesa was allegedly helping Terry launder the money and was enjoying the same lifestyle. In an interview, she revealed, “I did have a glamorous life. I lived like as if I was a Hollywood star. I could do whatever I wanted to do. Everything was A-list for me; from shopping, to nightclubs, to restaurants. You kind of forget that you’re living this double life.”
Tonesa added, “Everything was top notch from the yachts, the jets, the clothing, the cars, the people. From the rooms and houses I walked in, the people that stepped in, everything was different.” In 2005, the Drug Enforcement Agency initiated a crackdown on members of the BMF, which was the result of a two-decade-long investigation and a part of the larger policy of the country’s “war on drugs”. Tonesa found herself among those arrested and was subsequently sentenced to 57 months behind bars against charges of money laundering.
Reflecting on her initial experience, Tonesa remarked, “When I first walked in, I was still in the midst of a bender, and I had to turn myself in at around 11:30 a.m. in Victorville… When I came down from that high, it was an incredibly painful moment. I felt awful. I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘How did I go from enjoying luxurious 1,000-count sheets, king-sized beds, and private flights to being incarcerated here in prison?’ It was truly the lowest point in my life.” Among the numerous members of the BMF indicted, Southwest Tee and Big Meech received sentences of 30 years each. It was during the trial and tribulations that she was given the name of “First Lady of BMF” by the prosecutors.
The movie effectively portrays the pivotal moments in Tonesa’s life and also brings attention to individuals who have been somewhat overlooked by history but played significant roles in her journey, such as Marlon Welch. The outstanding performances by the actors contribute significantly to the authenticity of the storytelling and have been instrumental in the film’s success. Set in 1980s Detroit, the movie aptly captures the city’s atmosphere, with all its tension and the chaotic underworld activity. While some events have been dramatized for narrative purposes, the film remains true to Tonesa’s story to the greatest extent possible.
Tonesa views her time in prison as a transformative experience that has allowed her to emerge as a completely new person. She now looks back at her life and gains a deeper understanding of her true self. Presently, she serves as an executive producer and has contributed in the same capacity for ‘First Lady of BMF: The Tonesa Welch Story.’ Her involvement extends to other television appearances, including ‘American Gangster: Trap Queens’ and a docu-series titled ‘Notorious Queens.’
Beyond her work in the entertainment industry, Tonesa has taken on a role in prison reform, as a philanthropist and a DMV advocate, and dedicated herself to helping others navigate their journeys of life. She stands as a symbol of a woman who has embraced her history, acknowledged her mistakes, and remains committed to becoming a better version of herself with each passing day.