“Bitch, do I look like I want a drink!” is among the first lines blurted to a woman by Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy E, instantly catapulting us into the 1980s, crack era of the pregangsta rap period.
Pulling up to a decrepit-looking Compton home strapped and in all-business mode, Eazy walks into the room to do one thing and one thing only — conduct business.
After some minutes of penis posturing and icy stare-downs, the future rap pop star and his drug-dealing hosts break upon hearing a batterram approaching the house, ready to pummel down the door. Everyone scrambles to hide guns, miscellaneous weapons, drugs, and anything else that could potentially incriminate them.
Quelling panic, Eazy races through the house, making his escape by kicking in a barred window, climbing to the roof, and leaping triumphantly into the night over rooftops.
In call and response fashion, women behind me bellowed “That’s right, baby.”
Thus begins F. Gary Gray’s testosterone-fueled Straight Outta Compton, the rags-to-riches (or, as BIG would put it, ashy-to-classy) tale chronicling the rise of pioneers of West Coast gangster rap.
Multiple accolades and a few mixed reviews of Compton have been pouring in, some of which downplay biographical liberties taken in this cinematic homage to the “most dangerous group in America.”
(One critic went so far as to effuse “I’m white. I live on east coast. I don’t listen to rap music. And, I’m a woman. But still, despite all those things, I still really enjoyed Straight Outta Compton, because it’s just a darn good film.” [My italics])
Cinematic self-flattering is inevitable since the film’s producers are the real life counterparts of the story’s main cast.
“I was on the set everyday,” Dr. Dre told the Breakfast Club, “making sure things were—Not babysitting, but making sure I agreed with everything that was happening. [My italics]”
Billing itself as a raw, gritty, and brutally honest portrait of Black, ghetto underdogs relying on “street knowledge” to rebel against inner-city economic turmoil and police violence, Compton focuses on the rise and breakup of Wright, Andre’ Young and O’Shea Jackson, who, along with DJ Yella and MC Ren, came together in 1986, from various points of the Compton area, to sell what they called reality rap records.
Their group, N.W.A. — Niggas With Attitude — would become one of the most revered and iconic in hip hop history and inaugurated inarguably the most notorious genre of rap music.
The film’s commitment to document the tension between law enforcement and Blacks coincide perfectly with criminal justice-related problems and police brutality currently lowering the quality of life of Blacks in the new millennium.
Three scenes into the story, and the message clear: nothing has changed as far criminal injustice and Black lives goes.
By all accounts, this driving theme, combined with superb acting performances, is the source of the fanfare over Compton. N.W.A.’s place within the cultural history of rap, as ghetto reporters unflinchingly observing the streets, is as controversial as it is undeniable.
However, Compton’s script, penned by Andrea Berloff and John Herman, fails to include any “social commentary” on the group’s misogynistic and violent portraits of black women, sexual relationships, and intimate partnerships. Odd, considering that N.W.A.’s gangsta-rap persona pivots on its dominance of “bitches”, “hos” and “prostitutes,” made abundantly clear in such songs as “To Kill A Hooker”, “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” and “One Less Bitch.”
Erasing criticism of misogyny from the film seemed presaged in the casting-call scandal marring the production of Compton. And it’s certainly true that a movie about street poets who considered themselves the “CNN of the ghetto,” and prided itself on shocking audiences, could not avoid explicit language — nor should it — deemed as sexist. That directorial approach would have been disingenuous and inauthentic.
Generous viewers may likely believe I am making much ado about nothing, and offset the warnings of black female scholars and critics by overestimating the occasional “Hey, little mama” (said by Ice Cube to a little girl) or a tear-filled moment between a distraught Dr. Dre and his mother, following the funeral of his younger brother, who was murdered.
However, the filmmakers commit themselves to unpacking the mass indignities that provoked the group to pen their signature song, “Fuck Da Police”, and, toward the end, address Ice Cube’s anti-semitic remarks, aimed at Jerry Heller, in his diss track against his former friends, “No Vaseline.”
Why give ill-attention to the group’s approach to misogynistic philosophy of gender relations? Why avoid establishing and exploring the nuances of male-female interactions which were central to the men’s lives, central to helping the men scale the corporate ladder?
Instead of boldly confronting the gender problem, what we get is a portrayal of women as the spoils of financially successful men, as the property or trophies of winners, as merely another material reward given for successfully climbing the American social pyramid.
A groupie scene involving the girlfriend of a gat-toting concert-goer comes immediately to mind.
While we clearly know the circumstances that led the five male members of the group to record an anti-police record, we are left in the dark about why Ice Cube composed “A Bitch Iz A Bitch.” Unless we are to refer back to the woman who abandoned her boyfriend to sleep with financially wealthy men.
Dre’s dark history with women, of which early reviewers had already forewarned, were conveniently left out. In 1991, at a record release party, Dre jawed and severely beat hip hop journalist Dee Barnes:
He picked me up by my hair and my ear and smashed my face and body into the wall…Next thing I know, I’m down on the ground and he’s kicking me in the ribs and stamping on my fingers. I ran into the women’s bathroom to hide, but he burst through the door and started bashing me in the back of the head.
Adding insult to injury, MC Ren and Eazy E, the remaining members of N. W. A. (Ice Cube had left the group by this point. And Barnes’ interview with Cube on her Fox show Pump It Up, was source of Dre’s aggravation) commended their brother for giving that “bitch” what she deserved.
Dre weighed in with his own recollection
“People talk all this shit, but you know, somebody fuck with me, I’m gonna fuck with them. I just did it, you know. Ain’t nothing you can do now by talking about it. Besides, it ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door”
It’s not hard to see why Dre “agreed” to the omit Barnes and Tarrie B from Compton’s story arch, as well as any reenactment of his domestic quarrels with ex-wife, Michel’le.
It risked jeopardizing the empathy audiences were asked to feel for these male protagonists. It risked leaving film-goers wondering how verbally abusing and physically beating women over something as trivial as a journalist featuring a rival artist on her show fits with Dre’s summary that Compton dispels any “misconceptions” about N.W.A.’s respect for women.
Unlike their younger, more rebellious selves, who, in setting out to pursue “The American Dream” had nothing to lose, the surviving members of N.W.A., now a comfortable part of the Black elite, have reputations to maintain and investments to protect. Ice Cube is a movie star, director, and music producer and Dr. Dre is a hip hop mogul whose deal with Beats Electronics is set to help him surpass P. Diddy as the richest man in the game.
For a film that purports to be visual discourse on violence against Blacks, the omission of the group’s misogynistic concept of male-female intimacy is not only disappointing. It’s irresponsible. I’m not sold on Gray’s reasoning that exploring the repercussions of N.W.A.’s misogyny and gender violence was a “side story,” sacrificed for the much larger issue of police brutality against the race.
Sanitizing the legacy of N.W.A. rendered a major disservice to black lives. State-sanctioned violence must be condemned, but, so too must gender violence, which equally harasses the prospects of black progress.
As I ranted to my cousin while exiting the theater, the third act of Berloff and Herman’s script was choppy, erratic, and pointless, bogged down by an impulse to name drop. Not only did sexism deserve more focus, but, creatively speaking, would have been a more compelling story.