Even though ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is currently in theaters on opening weekend, I didn’t want to immediately jump on the bandwagon of discussing what was right or wrong about the film. I wanted to wait at least a week and let my feelings about it marinate, and take the time to form a proper response to what I felt was the film’s single most glaring omission.
Even though I’ll be accused of being Captain Obvious for stating this, it’s worth stating anyway before I make my case for what’s wrong with the film: ‘Straight Outta Compton‘ is NOT a documentary. It’s based on and inspired by real life events, with input directly from the living members of N.W.A, with the son of one in particular (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) portraying the role of his father (Ice Cube) in the movie. From a personal perspective it’s a little odd given Cube is only a few years older than I am. I was coming of age listening to N.W.A’s music while they were coming of age MAKING the music.
I think it’s fair to say many (but not all) men are not at the peak of our emotional maturity or personal responsibility in their late teens and early 20’s. It’s definitely true that I wasn’t, and I didn’t experience the meteoric rise to fame and recognition that N.W.A did, not receive the side benefits of getting to travel the world as a rap superstar. Whatever the film’s faults are, it does at least show the negative consequences of ego gone wild, including Eazy-E (Eric Wright) believing he could sleep with virtually every attractive and willing woman he came in contact with no consequences. “I’m not gay” protests E when informed he has AIDS – an otherwise intelligent man completely out of touch with the reality that unprotected promiscuous sex puts you at risk no matter what. He paid the ultimate price for his naivete.
The film is also to my recollection largely accurate about the financial issues that broke the group up, which in the pre-internet heyday was the kind of thing you could only read about in magazines like The Source. That was another consequence of skyrocketing to fame, success and popularity – contracts weren’t being reviewed and deals weren’t being honored. Ice Cube was the first one to realize that he wasn’t getting what he deserved, and that Jerry Heller was ganking everybody in general and him in particular, accusations Heller still denies today. Once Cube bounced, it was inevitable for Dr. Dre to follow in his footsteps, and once they were both gone N.W.A was dead in the water. The film gets all of this largely right (with some obvious fictionalization for dramatic effect) but still leaves out ONE HUGE DETAIL in the group’s demise – one which still has negative consequences to this day.
As someone who grew up without cable television Pump It Up on FOX was crucial to me, and Sister Dee was a personal idol. I could corral my Aunt and Uncle into recording Yo! MTV Raps for me from time to time and giving me the VHS tapes when they saw me, but I had immediate access to Sister Dee’s show every single weekend. Much like my subscription to The Source, it kept me in touch with the larger world of hip-hop at a very young age, and also struck a chord with me in its lack of favoritism toward any one coast or region. One week she’d be interviewing KRS-One, the next week she’d be interviewing N.W.A – but as it turned out her first interview with Ice Cube would cost her dearly. Against her own input and advice the latter was spliced into her N.W.A interview by Pump It Up’s producer Jeff Shore, and Cube (not surprisingly) had negative things to say about the group after leaving. I’ll let former N.W.A promoter Doug Young take it from here.
If you didn’t (or couldn’t) watch the embedded clip I’ll sum it up like this – Dr. Dre took exception to Cube’s comments and confronted Sister Dee at an album release party. Had he just yelled “F@%$ YOU B#$!@” and kept going it would have been vile anyway, but not as morally reprehensible as what DID happen – the 6’1″ Andre Young threw the 5’3″ Barnes down a flight of stairs and proceeded to ground and pound her like a MMA fight. I’m not saying this would be any better if he did it to a man his size, or a man her size, or someone who wasn’t as well known as Dee (who besides hosting Pump It Up was a rapper in her own right). The point is that it was a complete size mismatch where she had virtually no chance to defend herself, on top of the fact she had done nothing wrong. She had no say in the editing of the show, nor the fact that it may have made N.W.A look like they had been set up for a sneak attack diss by Cube, but since when is the response to that to savagely beat the crap out of ANYONE regardless of gender or size? They had a virtually unlimited tap to the press to air their grievances over the issue, and instead decided to air them on Dee Barnes’ face – and they remained unrepentant about it afterward. The quote Gawker takes from The Source about it is pretty nauseating.
Eazy-E: “Nah, it’s not ill. The b—h deserved it. She knew that. We were closer than that, we were like family, we’ve been knowin’ her a long time. And anyway, if my brother f—s up, we’re f—-n’ him up, too. It’s business.”
I’ve already made it clear that N.W.A’s members were not at the height of their emotional maturity in their 20’s, and right or wrong that’s what fans their age loved about their work. It was politically incorrect, offensive, rude and quite often misogynistic. Since we’re talking about movies here anyway, Johnny Strabler (played by Marlon Brando) once famously answered the question “What are you rebelling against Johnny?” with the line “Whaddaya got?” That was N.W.A for me and for a lot of their fans – they were completely against everything that a racist country and society had offered them to date. Some innocent bystanders got trampled in the way but their cause seemed just, particularly when you compared the lyrics of “F@%# the Police” to what happened to Rodney King. They weren’t just nihilistic misogynists – they were prophets of rage.
A lot of their anger was righteous and just, but their anger toward women in general (and Dee in particular) was not. Dee has herself addressed the issue, noting that although Dre ultimately settled a civil suit with her out of court, the incident left her a persona non grata in the music industry – as if somehow it was HER fault she got the crap kicked out of her. She still suffers daily migraine headaches because of the beating, while the only migraine Dre will ever suffer is from turning up the volume in his Beats By Dre headphones too loud. People have suggested they should be called “Beat(en) by Dre” as a joke but it’s really no laughing matter. Andre has offered a much too belated apology and Dee ain’t havin’ it. The incident itself as well as the general air of misogynist attitude toward women in our society shouldn’t be swept under the rug by the film or by hip-hop.
Hip-Hop is a reflection of society. Rappers write about what they see and while like Hollywood movies they may at times exaggerate or fictionalize it, they don’t invent it out of whole cloth either. Andre Young and the film’s director F. Gary Gray (who not coincidentally was Dee’s cameraman on Pump It Up) shouldn’t be given a pass just because they got most of the story right save for a little fiction for the sake of drama. N.W.A’s attitude toward women on tape/CD back then was in fact a reflection of a 20-something misogynistic male in society then or now, and that same attitude is reflected in songs like “Findum, F@%#um and Flee.” The beatdown of Dee Barnes was a reflection of their environment too, and while we can applaud their truth musically, the WHOLE truth needs to be told – good, bad, and like Dee’s face after the beating – ugly.
Furthermore – Dee’s story shouldn’t not be ignored just because Dre went on to super stardom and she languished in relative obscurity by comparison. She’s currently writing her memoirs entitled “Music, Myth, and Misogyny: Memoirs of a Female MC.” I look forward to reading it and applaud Dee for the courage to speak out about what happened to her, given people will automatically say she’s “jealous” or a “hater” or “riding on Dre’s coattails.” She benefits from this in no way other than making sure society’s misogynism gets a chin check, and by giving us the opportunity to read and learn from the whole story – not just the one that leaves the beatings by Dre out of the picture.