Earlier this week, I wrote a column about the smash hit NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, and its omission of Dr. Dre’s assault on young journalist Denise “Sista Dee” Barnes. The main point of the column was to expose people to Dee’s story, and to try and convey just how much she meant to hip-hop fans at the time, but in setting the table for that narrow purpose, the piece provoked some interesting reactions. The success of Straight Outta Compton is a complicated story with a lot of angles, too many to fully address in a single column, or even two.
Some folks were dismayed at the focus on a negative aspect of the story, rather than on, say, the fact that theaters called in extra security when they should have been hiring extra accountants to count all that money. That’s a point I addressed in another column, but it is an angle that is worthy of attention, a neat metaphor for the unjust threat narratives that fuel the brutality that gave NWA its lift, and connect their success to today’s #BlackLivesMatter moment. Lest anyone believe that the extra security was a gangsta thing, and not a black thing, remember that they did the same thing for The Butler.
In a similar vein, some folks posited that the column was an effort to pick on black men for violence against women and/or violent, misogynistic lyrics. Never mind that the piece itself references the double-standard between rap and rock lyrics, or that anyone with access to Google can check whether I’ve written about white perpetrators of violence against women (spoiler alert: I have), the premise of this objection is sick on its face, that somehow Mel Gibson’s actions cancel out Dr. Dre’s.
There were some who felt that I was applying a double-standard to director F. Gary Gray for leaving things out of a biopic, when directors always leave big things out of biopics. As I said in my piece, though, my intent wasn’t so much to criticize Gray’s omission as to fill it in. I just could have done without him comparing the assault on Sista Dee to an Eazy E dis record.
Selma director Ava Duvernay took a tautological approach to the group’s treatment of women by dropping a few “it is what it is” tweets into her glowing Twitter review of the film:
He captured the plight of the black artist in general, once consumed by systems and structures not made for them. The struggle is real.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 16, 2015
From depictions of the origins of "Bye Felicia" to watching Cube bring his wife Kim to business meetings. That's hip hop. A curious thing.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 16, 2015
Then, there was sportswriter Jason Whitlock, who dismisses NWA’s social and political significance as a single-song phenomenon built on a rickety foundation of irredeemable violence porn. He’s not entirely wrong, and his tweets on the subject are well worth a read. He urges people to listen back to the songs and take notes, but you don’t have to go far. On the de facto NWA album Eazy Duz It, Eazy E raps about attempting to rape a woman during a bank robbery, then shooting her between the legs when he discovers she’s a trans-woman, and on another track, brags that he “might be a woman-beater, but I’m not a pussy-eater.”
Where I would disagree with Whitlock is in his quantification of NWA’s politically relevant raps. There were actually several songs that dealt with police brutality, references to police brutality dropped into other songs, and even the purely gangsta tunes carried messages about the currents of American life that trap black people between the devil and the deep blue sea. But essentially, Whitlock is correct, NWA arrived at, and benefited from, a socially conscious moment in rap music, and “Fuck Tha Police” became its anthem.
Whether deliberate or not, though, NWA’s cultural impact can’t be ignored. It is those police brutality narratives that people are connecting with today, but even back then, the success of NWA helped propel higher forms of art dedicated to depicting the struggles of black people. Without NWA, there probably would have been no Boyz n the Hood, or Menace II Society, or Friday, and as a result, no John Singleton, no Hughes brothers, and no F. Gary Gray.
That’s the same F. Gary Gray who directed Straight Outta Compton, and who is taking so much heat for leaving the assault on Sista Dee out of the film. In the most important piece to be written about the film to date, Sista Dee Barnes reveals something else about Gary, and it is jaw-dropping:
Gary was the one holding the camera during that fateful interview with Ice Cube, which was filmed on the set of Boyz N the Hood. I was there to interview the rapper Yo Yo. Cube was in a great mood, even though he was about to shoot and he was getting into character.
Cube went into a trailer to talk to Gary and Pump It Up! producer Jeff Shore. I saw as he exited that Cube’s mood had changed. Either they told him something or showed him the N.W.A. footage we had shot a few weeks earlier. What ended up airing was squeaky clean compared to the raw footage. N.W.A. were chewing Cube up and spitting him out. I was trying to do a serious interview and they were just clowning—talking shit, cursing. It was crazy.
Right after we shot a now-angry Cube and they shouted, “Cut!” one of the producers said, “We’re going to put that in.” I said, “Hell no.” I wasn’t even thinking about being attacked at the time, I was just afraid that they were going to shoot each other. I didn’t want to be part of that. “This is no laughing matter,” I tried telling them. “This is no joke. These guys take this stuff seriously.” I was told by executives that I was being emotional. That’s because I’m a woman. They would have never told a man that. They would have taken him seriously and listened.
It was that interview that precipitated the attack on Barnes, a fact that makes Gray’s omission of the incident all the more glaring. Among the other revelations in Dee’s must-read essay on the film is that after the attack, she was blackballed by an industry afraid to cross the influential Dr. Dre, and was even denied a film role… by F. Gary Gray. Wow.
Even after all of that, though, Dee Barnes has a clear-eyed view of the film and the group,with nary a trace of bitterness. “The biggest problem with Straight Outta Compton is that it ignores several of N.W.A.’s own harsh realities,” Dee writes. “That’s not gangsta, it’s not personal, it’s just business.”
When NWA arrived on the scene, hip-hop was at a crossroads, and Dee Barnes’ Pump it Up! was the place where it met. Her show was the only place to see videos from the female rappers whom she writes about now, or dozens of other acts that didn’t fit the crossover bill. The hip-hop world, and the wider world, would have been a better place had she been allowed to thrive along with NWA, and she deserves to be listened to now.