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Is praise for 'Compton' and N.W.A. at the expense of black women?

(Back row, L-R) Dr. Dre, Laylaw, The D.O.C. and (front row, L-R) Ice Cube, Eazy-E., MC Ren and DJ Yella  before an N.W.A. performance during the
(Back row, L-R) Dr. Dre, Laylaw, The D.O.C. and (front row, L-R) Ice Cube, Eazy-E., MC Ren and DJ Yella before an N.W.A. performance during the "Straight Outta Compton" tour in Kansas City, Missouri in 1989.
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“Straight Outta Compton” is a rags-to-riches story that depicts the founding members of the rap group N.W.A. as urban poets coming of age in South L.A. during the late 1980s and early '90s amidst gang violence, police brutality and riots.

The movie has received largely favorable reviews, but some critics say it dramatically minimizes and even celebrates the misogyny and violence against women at the heart of N.W.A’s music. Meanwhile, media attention on the issue has been minimal.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Ice Cube addressed the subject of their lyrics this way:

If you're a bitch, you're probably not going to like us," he says. "If you're a ho, you probably don't like us. If you're not a ho or a bitch, don't be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn't be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that's men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we're talking about her.

In that same Rolling Stone interview, Dr. Dre addressed the 1991 incident when he assaulted TV host Dee Barnes, as well as recent charges of physical abuse by his '90s girlfriend Michel'le.

I made some f---ing horrible mistakes in my life. I was young, f---ing stupid. I would say all the allegations aren't true – some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. It was really f---ed up. But I paid for those mistakes, and there's no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.

Barnes responded with an essay published  by Gawker in which she reveals that "Straight Outta Compton" director F. Gary Gray was the cameraman for an interview she conducted that led to her being attacked by Dr. Dre.

Even before "Straight Outta Compton" hit theaters, Sikivu Hutchinson — a visiting scholar at USC’s Center for Feminist Research — wrote in The Huffington Post: "As gangsta rap pioneers and beneficiaries of the corporatization of rap/hip hop in the 1990s, N.W.A. played a key role in yoking rape culture and rap misogyny." Her essay is entitled “Straight Outta Rape Culture."

When she joined John Horn on The Frame, he began with a quote from her piece.


You wrote: "The brutalized bodies of black women will be lost in the predictable stampede of media accolades," and that movie critics will "fail to highlight how the group's multi-million dollar empire was built on black women's backs." You wrote that before the movie opened. Did your prediction turn out to be true?

I have not seen any deep and abiding appraisal of the movie that really takes into consideration the message that N.W.A. perpetuated vis a vis the normalization of sexual violence in African-American communities inflicted upon the bodies of black women and how that has really driven — in large part — the success of their empire.

You haven't seen the film, but I will tell you it is of no surprise that there is no real conversation in the film itself about misogyny and about what the lyrics are saying about women. Do you think a movie could have been made that addressed that issue within the context of what Hollywood was trying to do?

I think it could've been made by an independent African American female filmmaker ... I don't see that happening within the typical Hollywood system.

Does it matter at all that the director of this film is a black man, or is it really about gender as opposed to race?

I think that there is an intersection at play here. Certainly the emphasis on the redemption of black masculinity is highlighted within this film, and films like it, in which young black men rise up from poverty, rise up from deprivation and achieve the American Dream. That is more or less the neo-liberal narrative of this type of film.

The black woman director Ava DuVernay, who made “Selma,” said via Twitter over the weekend: 

She's talking about the paradox of being a young black woman in a very masculinist, misogynist culture in which our voices and our bodies are constantly being marginalized and made invisible, and again are being utilized for a multi-million dollar — if not a multi-billion dollar — industry which is propelled by corporations and propelled, in large part, by white suburban consumption. And many of the voices that we saw, rallying around this mythicized notion of N.W.A. and "Straight Outta Compton," were white mainstream voices.

But at the same time, the movie has done record-breaking business and it's not just all white men who are seeing it. It's a cosmopolitan crowd and it's a lot of black women who are going to see this film. Does it bother you that black women are attending this movie in the numbers that they are?

Yes it does. And I think that it reflects the degree to which black women are steeped within the culture of misogynist dehumanization. In many regards, this is simply a reflection of how the lives and the subjectivity of black women are constantly again being commodified and objectified at the expense of the narrative of black male redemption. So there are a lot of complexities at play in black women's consumption of this music in general and this movie in particular.


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