Straight Outta Compton and the Power of Black Women’s “Side Stories”

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterWhen director F. Gary Gray chose to cut the scene depicting rap producer Dr. Dre’s infamous assault on journalist Dee Barnes, then-TV host of Fox’s hip-hop show Pump it Up! back in January 1991, he dismissed the incident as one of many “side stories” that distracted from the main one concerning rap group N.W.A.’s rise to fame in the box-office hit Straight Outta Compton. Little did he know that, in the age of social media, side stories come with their own voices, narratives and magnitude.

As someone who watched this summer movie with the nostalgia of growing up during my secondary-school years with the era’s hip-hop playing in the background, I could not help but reflect fondly and blurt out the hooks along with the movie audience to some recognizable songs heard on the soundtrack (when was the last time I heard De La Soul’s “Me Myself and I”?). But equally recognizable was the misogyny.

N.W.A. is infamous for rap songs like “A Bitch is a Bitch,” “One Less Bitch,” and “She Swallowed It.”  Such misogyny–or misogynoir, as coined by Moya Bailey, referring specifically to black woman-hating—is visually coded throughout the film, right from the opening scene. We see this when Eazy-E (portrayed uncannily by Jason Williams) enters a crack house, about to make a drug deal, where the hardened dealers bark orders at their “ride-or-die” women. Incidentally, a drug raid ensues, and these women are the only ones seriously injured—one by law enforcement, the other knocked down as Eazy-E makes his getaway. Perhaps it was not Gary’s intent, but the scene gives us a glimpse into how women of color were swept up in the prison-industrial complex, as their roles specifically included handling and hiding the drugs (an obvious setup by the men in their lives who take pleasure in subjugating them). Interesting “side story” that made the cut.

Another “side story” that made the cut? A scene depicting an orgy in a hotel room while N.W.A. are on tour. Filled with topless women of varying shades, the one singled out for sexual humiliation is the darkest-skinned woman present—given the name “Felicia” (listed in the credits as Asia’h Epperson, though this may not be accurate)—who is shown performing fellatio on Eazy-E just before she is tossed from the room and dismissed with the infamous “Bye Felicia” insult. This “origin” of the phrase, first used in the Ice Cube-vehicle Friday, is given a misogynoir spin, but somehow this scene is supposedly more germane to N.W.A.’s story than Dee Barnes’ assault.

And perhaps it is. Here is no clearer example of the disposability of black women’s bodies, already cast as such in the rap group’s lyrics. Straight Outta Compton is a film that is quite adept in its critique of racism, police brutality, and the exploitation of black musicians by white managers and record labels. Yet, it maintains a blind spot when it comes to sexism. This is unfortunate, as the film tells a compelling story with rich visuals, exciting edits and politically charged moments—from N.W.A.’s defiant performance of “F— the Police” to the footage of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots in L.A. that followed the not-guilty verdict. This bit of history contextualizes quite effortlessly the contemporary moment surrounding #BlackLivesMatter.

However, as Dee Barnes herself so powerfully argued in her essay, “Here’s What’s Missing from Straight Outta Compton,” the knee in her back from a police officer does not feel any different from Dr. Dre’s knee in her chest as he “straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom at the Po Na Na Souk nightclub in 1991.” In other words, for black women and other women of color, there is no divorcing race from gender. We suffer at the intersections, which oftentimes means that we fall through the cracks of dominant narratives.

Read in Full at Ms. Magazine Blog.

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Janell Hobson

Janell Hobson is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005, 2nd ed. 2018) and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012). She also writes and blogs for Ms. Magazine. Follow her on Twitter@JProfessor.