Controversy is nothing new for N.W.A.
While “Straight Outta Compton” received stellar reviews leading up to its opening, many critics noted how the N.W.A biopic, like the many biopics before it, offers a sanitized version of the story as told by its heroes.
For some, it is the history that is excluded from the film that is most significant, especially considering the divergent storylines “Compton” follows in its latter part.
The omission of N.W.A’s troubled history with women — from their violent lyrics to actual and alleged incidents of physical assault — combined with the way female characters in the movie are portrayed has provoked angry responses. Some are calling out “Compton” for perpetuating the misogyny present in the group’s music, criticisms that echo the group’s past.
Absent from the film is any mention or reference to Dr. Dre’s assault on TV personality Dee Barnes. The altercation happened at a private party on Jan. 27, 1991, and Dr. Dre eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery in connection with the assault, serving two years’ probation.
“That event isn’t depicted in ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ but I don’t think it should have been, either,” said Barnes in an essay about the incident that she wrote for Gawker after seeing the film. “But what should have been addressed is that it occurred. When I was sitting there in the theater, and the movie’s timeline skipped by my attack without a glance … Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A, I found myself a casualty of ‘Straight Outta Compton’s’ revisionist history.”
While those from the “Straight Outta Compton” camp were unavailable for comments, director F. Gary Gray has previously said that Barnes’ story was omitted from “Straight Outta Compton” because it didn’t serve N.W.A’s narrative in the movie.
It is not just Barnes’ story that is omitted. There is no reference to Dr. Dre’s past with his ex-fiancée and R&B singer Michel’le (who is not surprised that she is absent from the film). The biopic also did not acknowledge any female artists that worked with the various members of N.W.A.
The film also glosses over how women are depicted in N.W.A’s music.
While “Compton” did show how N.W.A’s debut album invoked public outrage, the focus of the backlash within the film is for the anti-authoritarian “F— tha Police,” even though just as vocal at the time were those who claimed N.W.A’s lyrics are especially violent against women.
“By mainstream rules … this material would be condemned as brutally sexist,” wrote Dennis Hunt in his album review for The Times, noting that N.W.A’s insistence that they are merely conduits for their truth would have them claim what they’re conveying “isn’t sexism, it’s reality.”
When Barnes filed a lawsuit against Dr. Dre and members of N.W.A in 1991 following the altercation, she said that the suit was “at its core about the close relationship between N.W.A’s misogynistic lyrics and violent crimes against women.”
“My lawsuit is not just about one five-foot three-inch woman getting slapped around by a six-foot two-inch guy,” Barnes told the Times in 1991. “It’s about how N.W.A rages violence against women in general. Millions of little boys listen to this … and they’re going to grow up thinking it’s all right to abuse women.”
Barnes was not the only person in 1991 to call out N.W.A or hip-hop regarding its depiction of women.
“Violence against Black women by Black men did not begin with rap music. Sexism did not begin with the black community,” dream hampton wrote in an 1991 editorial for The Source. “Sexism exists in the hip-hop generation. … Hip-hop music must take responsibility for eliminating the perpetuation of the destruction of the Black community [through] the abuse of the Black women. It has no place in revolutionary music.”
To this day, Ice Cube stands by his lyrics, telling Rolling Stone in a magazine preview published Aug. 12, that women should not be “jumping to the defense of these despicable females,” suggesting a difference between the average woman and the women in N.W.A’s music.
Sikivu Hitchinson doesn’t see this distinction. She writes in her essay on the Huffington Post, “inundated with multi-platinum misogynist hip hop and rap, [black] girls have grown up with the pervasive message that violence against black women and girls is normal, natural, and justifiable."
“As gangsta rap pioneers and beneficiaries of the corporatization of rap/hip hop in the 1990s, N.W.A played a key role in yoking rape culture and rap misogyny,” she says. “The ‘Straight Outta Compton’ narrative sacrifices [black women’s] bodies on the altar of black masculine triumph and American dream-style redemption, signifying that the only occupying violence black America should really be concerned about is that perpetrated by the police.”
The absence of these instances of lyrical and physical violence against women further complicates the film according to Allison P. Davis, who specifically points out the “Bye, Felicia” scene from the film.
The scene in question is a nod to Ice Cube’s “Friday,” which originated a now-omnipresent Internet hashtag. Following an armed confrontation between N.W.A and men looking for Felicia, the film version of Ice Cube in “Compton” pushes the unclothed woman from their hotel room, essentially for being too much trouble (there are plenty of others still in the room).
“I think for a movie that omitted discussing and contextualizing a history of degradation of women, a brutality of women — to ignore that conversation and then to add a misogynistic moment for a punchline just felt really bad and really insensitive and thoughtless,” Davis later told NPR. “I think it’s demonstrative of how society treats black women in general. You’ll ignore the brutality, and then you’ll ignore discussions of empowerment — we’re throwaways.”
However, much like N.W.A’s music, these reactions do not preclude women from enjoying the film.
Oprah Winfrey praised the film for being “powerful,” asking “Selma” director Ava DuVernay for her thoughts on Twitter.
DuVernay, who grew up in Compton, used Twitter to praise the film and director F. Gary Gray for getting it right. She even directly addresses how women are depicted in the film as historically accurate.
But perhaps most significant, are her words on being a female fan of hip hop.
“To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours,” she said.