Straight Outta Compton and the Power of Black Women’s “Side Stories”

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterWhen director F. Gary Gray chose to cut the scene depicting rap producer Dr. Dre’s infamous assault on journalist Dee Barnes, then-TV host of Fox’s hip-hop show Pump it Up! back in January 1991, he dismissed the incident as one of many “side stories” that distracted from the main one concerning rap group N.W.A.’s rise to fame in the box-office hit Straight Outta Compton. Little did he know that, in the age of social media, side stories come with their own voices, narratives and magnitude.

As someone who watched this summer movie with the nostalgia of growing up during my secondary-school years with the era’s hip-hop playing in the background, I could not help but reflect fondly and blurt out the hooks along with the movie audience to some recognizable songs heard on the soundtrack (when was the last time I heard De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I”?). But equally recognizable was the misogyny.

N.W.A. is infamous for rap songs like “A Bitch is a Bitch,” “One Less Bitch,” and “She Swallowed It.”  Such misogyny–or misogynoir, as coined by Moya Bailey, referring specifically to Black woman-hating—is visually coded throughout the film, right from the opening scene. We see this when Eazy-E (portrayed uncannily by Jason Williams) enters a crack house, about to make a drug deal, where the hardened dealers bark orders at their “ride-or-die” women. Incidentally, a drug raid ensues, and these women are the only ones seriously injured—one by law enforcement, the other knocked down as Eazy-E makes his getaway. Perhaps it was not Gary’s intent, but the scene gives us a glimpse into how women of color were swept up in the prison-industrial complex, as their roles specifically included handling and hiding the drugs (an obvious setup by the men in their lives who take pleasure in subjugating them). Interesting “side story” that made the cut.

Another “side story” that made the cut? A scene depicting an orgy in a hotel room while N.W.A. are on tour. Filled with topless women of varying shades, the one singled out for sexual humiliation is the darkest-skinned woman present—given the name “Felicia” (listed in the credits as Asia’h Epperson, though this may not be accurate)—who is shown performing fellatio on Eazy-E just before she is tossed from the room and dismissed with the infamous “Bye Felicia” insult. This “origin” of the phrase, first used in the Ice Cube-vehicle Friday, is given a misogynoir spin, but somehow this scene is supposedly more germane to N.W.A.’s story than Dee Barnes’ assault.

And perhaps it is. Here is no clearer example of the disposability of Black women’s bodies, already cast as such in the rap group’s lyrics. Straight Outta Compton is a film that is quite adept in its critique of racism, police brutality, and the exploitation of Black musicians by white managers and record labels. Yet, it maintains a blind spot when it comes to sexism. This is unfortunate, as the film tells a compelling story with rich visuals, exciting edits and politically charged moments—from N.W.A.’s defiant performance of “F— the Police” to the footage of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots in L.A. that followed the not-guilty verdict. This bit of history contextualizes quite effortlessly the contemporary moment surrounding #BlackLivesMatter.

However, as Dee Barnes herself so powerfully argued in her essay, “Here’s What’s Missing from Straight Outta Compton,” the knee in her back from a police officer does not feel any different from Dr. Dre’s knee in her chest as he “straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom at the Po Na Na Souk nightclub in 1991.” In other words, for Black women and other women of color, there is no divorcing race from gender. We suffer at the intersections, which oftentimes means that we fall through the cracks of dominant narratives.

Barnes’ counter-narrative is a powerful companion to the film since she reinserts the women missing from the story: not just her own assault but the physical abuse by Dre of his then-girlfriend Michel’le, whose own musical recordings were instrumental to the success of N.W.A.’s label Ruthless Records. There is also the early success of women rappers like J.J. Fad and Yo Yo, as well as white woman rapper Tairrie B, who was also publicly beaten by Dre.

Intriguingly, Dre (brilliantly portrayed by Corey Hawkins) is depicted in heroic terms. Actually, this film has done much to make the lead men relatable, vulnerable and far more human than their outward “gangsta” personas, which often cloak their realness through projections of hard masculinity.

Dre himself is often shown crying, something never captured in hip-hop imagery. He is also depicted as a devoted “brother”—both to his kin and bandmates. And he is slow to anger, compared to Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Ice Cube’s son). He even has sense to walk away from their swindler manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti) before taking a financial hit and later from Death Row Records partner Suge Knight (played by R. Marcos Taylor). Ironically, Dre leaves Death Row because he’s repelled by Knight’s violence.

It’s difficult to reconcile this portrayal with the reality of a man who routinely battered women. However, the first woman we see him interact with is his mother Verna Griffin (played by Lisa Renee Pitts), who slaps him during an argument as she chides him for missing a job she helped him get. He gives her grudging respect, but she—much like the mother of his child—nags him for money, which means that in the subtext of all that “mama love” such men pay lip service to is an underbelly of woman-hating that finds expression in interactions with other women who are dichotomized into “upstanding ladies” and “bitches and hos,” as Ice Cube recently put it. While Michel’le is missing from the film—except when name-checked in a rap battle between Ice Cube and the remaining N.W.A. members—we are certainly introduced to Dre’s sexy but respectable, nonblack soon-to-be-wife Nicole (played by Elena Goode).

That Dre, Cube and Eazy-E are all partnered with racially ambiguous women simply reinforces colorist sexism, as already demonstrated by the film’s casting call. And while the film creates a racial and color hierarchy of women’s bodies, all women are shortchanged and not afforded the same humanity as the men. They are strangely muted and silent when hanging around at studios, their boyfriends’ homes or the numerous wild pool parties that resemble a typical rap music video.

Such glaring attempts at erasing and marginalizing Black women reverberate at a time of violence against us at the hands of police and others. This is also an interesting time for Black women’s hypervisibility as different high-profile Black women currently grace the covers of eight different magazines for the month of September. We’re also very visible in social media, bringing the stories of Barnes and others to the fore. This pushback was certainly learned from a tradition of hip-hop feminism, arguably begun with Roxanne Shante’s 1984 “diss” record in response to hip-hop chauvinism, because as filmmaker Ava DuVernay so aptly tweeted: “To be a woman who loves hip-hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.”

Men like the members of N.W.A. ignited our desire—as hip-hop feminist Joan Morgan acknowledged—to create our own spaces for resistance. The internet amplified that audience. And now Dr. Dre has apologized to the “women I’ve hurt.” Such apologies could not have occurred without the power of “side stories.”

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.