I was never anywhere close to the man that N.W.A. portrayed themselves to be in their music, nor did I believe everything that they espoused, but from the first preview I saw, I knew that I was going to see Straight Outta Compton. On opening weekend I showed up to Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater damned near giddy, in full N.W.A. themed regalia. Days later, even after reading commentators searing assessments of its purported failures, I felt as guiltless as an overly aggressive cop, confident that the movie’s whole is greater than the negation of its parts.
That negation has focused mostly on two conflicting ideas. The first is that the movie is so whitewashed compared to N.W.A.’s true history that it borders on Disney fare. On the other hand, you have the view that the film is unashamedly immoral in general, and unapologetically sexist in particular. If you’re particularly lucky, you might even find these criticisms in the same thinkpiece.
Since half of the producers are either former members of the group or the widow of one, certainly the motivation to tidy things up would be powerful. Many assume that that’s the only reason why Dre’s assaults on women, both confirmed and alleged, don’t appear, and I certainly agree that the Dee Barnes incident, a matter of public record, was conspicuous in its absence.
Personally, I hoped to see Dr. Dre’s run-in with Barnes depicted in order to learn what drove him to such a dark place. Done well, its appearance could’ve added further complexity to the film and to the public’s understanding of Dre as a person, not to mention cast further light on the issue of violence against women.
But even with that disappointingly gaping hole, I can’t believe that anyone who was previously unfamiliar with N.W.A. saw the movie and left thinking that those dudes were on the Vatican’s short list for beatification. After all, Dre was just one member of a five man squad, and there was enough bad behavior on display by all of them to get the idea that this crew was ready and willing to get plenty dirty.
No, they didn’t depict the infamous assault, but neither did they avoid the lyrics brazenly portraying violence against women and men. Eazy-E still bragged about his inclination to smother your moms and all that. There are numerous on-screen fights, threatened fights, guns, and threats with guns. Likewise, they didn’t hide the so-called homophobic and anti-Semitic lyrics, and definitely not the bootylicious pool and sex parties. (Mental Note #1: Throw a pool party. Mental Note #2: Get a pool.)
On the real, the negative side of N.W.A. was practically a supporting character in this film. In fact, for some people there was too much negativity on screen, especially as it relates to the role of women, who were either minor characters or sextras. For those feminists, the film not only failed to uplift women, it stuck a knee in their backs and held them face down on the floor.
This is normally the part where I acknowledge the truth in the contrasting POV while urgently opposing it, but in this case, all I can manage is a confused hell to the naw.
Now, I didn’t know any bitches or dirty-ass hoes during N.W.A.’s heyday, and I’m thrilled to say that I’ve met extremely few women worthy of those pointed sobriquets more than 20 years later. But make no mistake: like the truth, they’re out there, probably in equal proportion to the skeevy, manipulative, doggish males who are their natural counterweights. Still, though they were always careful to point out that not all women are bitches during interviews, N.W.A. seemed to be constantly besieged by wack ass females, forcing me to wonder if the United Queendom of Bitchland and Hodesia was some kind of micronation nestled in a cozy corner of Compton.
I mean, these dudes talked about bitches a lot. It’s a fact. Their scandalous parties were real. Also a fact. They were touring artists, which means that they had access to a lot of women willing to get…adventurous…on any given night. This is common sense. Misogyny it may be, but is there any wonder that this stuff showed up in the movie?
In a much less cited section of Selma director Ava DuVernay’s now famous Twitter commentary on Compton, she had this to say:
I saw @ComptonMovie last night w/ friends at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Central…And damn, they got it right…I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened.”
If the ho-calling and womanizing hadn’t appeared, wouldn’t that be a prime example of the supposed sanitizing that so many are up in arms about?
The same thing goes for why there weren’t any females in starring roles. This film is about N.W.A. The last time I checked, N.W.A. was five dudes. Anyone else in the movie is there solely to give insight into or act as a foil to those characters. Period. So, if you want to see a movie with strong female leads about a group that skyrockets to stardom and then implodes, just rent fucking Dreamgirls.
With that said, the women who do get some shine in this movie play crucial roles in keeping the main characters grounded, while simultaneously moving them forward. Whether it’s Dre’s mom, or Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s wives (no doubt standing in for other women in some instances, such as Cube’s erstwhile manager and business partner Pat Charbonnet), each of them steps in at pivotal moments to exert powerful influences on these men’s emotional and even commercial lives, putting them back on track and keeping them rolling in the face of potentially catastrophic setbacks. I can’t help but see this as a deliberate attempt to acknowledge women’s behind-the-scenes contribution to the N.W.A. legacy.
And yes, those nods to the women in their lives does humanize them a bit, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend that you’re not supposed to walk out of the theater appreciating N.W.A. as highly gifted, driven visionaries. Hell, you better believe that if I have a hand in my biopic, you’ll come away believing in your tender heart of hearts that I founded Netflix, conceptualized summer Fridays, and invented yoga pants.
Still, The World’s Most Dangerous Group and their heirs don’t want you hailing them as heroes, but as the ultimate anti-heroes. Their music and the exaggerated characters they played in it must be understood as standing in the same tradition as the gangster flicks from 30s down to the 80s, and especially the blaxploitation films of the 70s. They didn’t invent their content, they just brought it to a different medium and updated it to reflect the realities of the crack era.
The movie, like the music before it, reflects this thrilling, fucked-up aesthetic. Some of the people who made them did foul things before and during the production of this beautiful shit. But if you stopped consuming every piece of art, food, or clothing because someone involved with the production of said item did something bad, egregious, or vicious, then you’d be uncultured, hungry, and naked.