I wasn’t surprised that Dr. Dre’s infamous 1991 attack on journalist Dee Barnes wouldn’t be seen or acknowledged in “Straight Outta Compton.” That a film produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the most successful members of N.W.A., wouldn’t address the former’s infamous violence against women — not just Barnes, but also rapper Tarrie B. and singer/former girlfriend Michel’le — isn’t as shocking as it is unfortunate. The attack on Barnes made huge news at the time; including it in the film would indicate a level of contrition that portraying Dre as the group’s good guy (as newbie Corey Hawkins does beautifully) would not.
However, the issue with N.W.A. and sexism is so much deeper than Dre’s physical violence against those three women, by far. As a longtime listener of hip-hop, I’d go so far as to say that the group’s most lasting legacy — greater than “F*** the Police,” greater than Dre’s expansive catalogue as a producer and Ice Cube’s reinvention as a family film dad — is how the group contributed to hip-hop’s long-standing tradition of seeing black women as little more than “bitches” and “hoes.”
For this reason, bringing myself to see this movie wasn’t an easy task. The idea that a group that was so absolutely harsh on black women (and spoke proudly of nihilistic violence against other black men) would be reimagined as some sort of American heroes or champions of blackness is disheartening, although very much consistent with the role rap music has played in popular culture for nearly half of it’s existence.
The commercial for “Straight Outta Compton,” which curiously chooses a black cop as the face of the police brutality faced by members of the legendary rap group (though the actual movie would depict far more intense violence at the hands of white officers), even managed to find placement during the first Republican presidential debate — ironically airing just after the evening’s only question about the Black Lives Matter movement.
The reviews, penned almost exclusively for large publications by white male writers, are glowing. Complex ‘s Cameron Wolf referred to the film as“almost perfect,” short of a historically inaccurate baseball cap choice; another hailed it as “rewarding for viewers of any background. Except, perhaps, police.” At Vulture, David Edelstein makes an awkward reference to August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — he might as well have said, “I know black art, like, really” — and calls it “intensely human and personal in its characterizations and attention to detail,” yet doesn’t mention the many women who somehow just didn’t make it to the story in any meaningful way (J.J. Fad, YoYo, for example.) Variety film critic Scott Foundas hasn’t a word to spare on the group’s misogyny. Wasn’t every writer expected to at least give the, “I know they’re sexist, but” caveat here? At least veteran Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers notes that the film would be better if it didn’t “sidestep the band’s misogyny, gay-bashing and malicious infighting,” but finds the final product to be “an amazement, an electrifying piece of hip-hop history that speaks urgently to right now.”
The “right now” is a national dialogue about the sort of police brutality experienced by the group’s members during their early days, and a mobilization of young people across the country against this violence. But with a handful of notable exceptions (Tef Poe, Jasiri X, Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar among them) this moment is far less driven by rap and rappers than it is by black women. Groups like Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, the Dream Defenders and other organizations that have been visible in places like Ferguson, Oakland and Chicago aren’t promoting the male-centric vision of black defiance that N.W.A. represented.
N.W.A’s gender issues aren’t explicitly addressed in “Straight Outta Compton,” but you’ll find hints of them in the film (and certainly the soundtrack.) Ice Cube (portrayed perfectly by son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) is seen shoving a groupie out of a hotel room by her head and saying, “Bye, Felicia,” meant to be a humorous nod to the famous line from his film, “Friday.” Mothers, girlfriends and wives are present, but none are particularly dynamic or treated as essential to the men of the group. The fact that it was Tomika Woods Wright who let husband Eazy-E know how Jerry Heller had taken advantage of him is acknowledged, briefly.
On the song which provides the film’s title, Eazy spits “Smother your mother and make your sister think I love her,” and “You think I give a damn about a b*tch, I ain’t a sucker. ” On “Just Don’t Bite It, ” Ren opts to receive oral sex from a woman because “There’s a slight chance if I f**k she might burn me, and then I might have to shoot the ‘ho.” And this was before the Cube-less second album “Niggaz4Life,” when the group took their misogyny up a notch (with tracks like“One Less Bitch” and “I’d Rather F**k You.”)
In an interview following the Rodney King beating, Ice Cube (who has recently departed the group and is flanked by members of the Nation of Islam) tells a reporter, “I’m a journalist, just like you, reporting what’s going on in the hood.” This is the messaging we have been sold about hip-hop for years, that rappers are telling the truth simply about what it means to be a black man in America. And persistently, that “reporting” has reduced black women to bitches, hoes and tricks — women who are shiftless and calculating, worth little other than whatever sexual services they are available to provide (willingly or otherwise.)
In the wake of the movie’s success (and it’s quality; I have no problem stating clearly that the film is brilliantly directed and acted), it seems audiences across the country may cast aside N.W.A.’s potent brand of misogyny and focus only the group’s willingness to speak plainly about their hatred of police. Unfortunately, it seems they hated black women just as much. And those of us who’ve called that out (most especially Barnes) have been attacked, dismissed and shamed on social media as opportunists and haters of black men — so much so that one can’t help but wonder how many of my own peers share that same sexism.
It hurts to know that black women are (still!) expected to fall in line and celebrate any black male triumph, even when we are trampled in the process. As director Ava DuVernay succinctly tweeted, “To be a woman who loves hip hop is to be in love with your abuser.” When it comes to N.W.A, I guess I just love myself — and my sisters — more.