After its release, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ evoked a slew of responses across social media, in the press and beyond. The film’s approach to telling the story of N.W.A was divisive, and many argued the biopic offered a revisionist history where the treatment of women was concerned. I wondered how these conversations did or didn’t consider the women who were left out of the story.

In the wake of the release of Straight Outta Compton, director Ava DuVernay tweeted “To be a woman who loves hip hop is to be in love with your abuser.”

The film, which grossed around $60 million in its first weekend, and surpassed the $100 million mark this past weekend, is touted as the true story of legendary rap group N.W.A. However, soon after its release, many took issue with the film’s revisionist history where misogyny and violence towards women were concerned. In an article penned for Jezebel, hip-hop journalist and former TV presenter Dee Barnes, who was attacked by Dr. Dre in a nightclub bathroom in 1991, spoke out about the incident being cut from the film, and also detailed the experience of being unable to find work after the occurrence. Barnes’ essay included a particularly succinct observation that cuts to the heart of the representation, or lack thereof, of women throughout the biopic. She says, “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

Dee Barnes Barnes’ insight, DuVernay’s tweet, and the overwhelming success of the film all work to illustrate the unique conundrum many black women face when it comes to the quagmire of race and gender. All too often, it can feel as if we must “pick a side” in the dialogue of racial equality versus gender equality, even if we feel under-considered in both conversations, and even if both are of equal importance to us. This in turn creates a situation in which we must either fail to acknowledge that our lives are at times devalued, and our needs ignored by the very same people we are asked to stand in solidarity with, or we can acknowledge this fact and be viewed by some as detractors from a cause that is greater than ourselves.
Image from Straight Outta Compton I once had an acquaintance tell me that she refused to identify as a feminist because being one would do nothing to help her black son. I can understand her sentiments; black women, after all, do not have the luxury of focusing on a singular cause. And I myself am leery of the label “feminist” because I am aware that traditional feminist rhetoric, even from its inception, has notoriously existed in friction with Civil Rights efforts, and in doing so, has often rejected alternative narratives. As early as the nineteenth century, when activist and journalist Ida B. Wells hoped to gain suffragist Frances Willard’s support in addressing the issue of violence against African-Americans in the South, she soon found that Willard considered the problem less than a priority, especially in light of the passing of the 15th amendment, which theoretically – though the Grandfather Clause actively attempted to circumvent it – allowed black men (but still not women) to vote. Willard was even quoted in the New York Voice as saying, “The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities,” in reference to the perceived threat of black men. At the time, it was more important to Willard to secure the support of white women in the South, who she hoped would help both the temperance and suffrage cause, than to advocate for a community that was being systematically murdered.
Image from Straight Outta Compton The divergence of these two movements, whether we are intimately aware of the history or not, has imprinted itself on theories surrounding race and gender, and at times, the friction is still tangible. It has really only been in very recent times that ideas like intersectional feminism have attempted to address this history, and create dialogues that recognize different women do indeed have varied and unique needs. While one doesn’t need to be a feminist to know that what occurred between Dr. Dre and Dee Barnes and the other women he abused was horrific and beyond wrong, it feels equally as wrong to see particular groups of people with particular motives condemning Dr. Dre, not for being an abuser, for which he rightfully should be condemned, but who rather use the incident to insidiously encourage pervasive stereotypes about the dangers of black men. When this occurs, sadly, it shifts the focus from the women who were hurt, and turns them into mere martyrs of white America’s fear of black male rage. A rage that, as Barnes points out, stems from a cycle of victimization and oppression. So just like that, these women are re-victimized for the sake of making a point.
Michel’le On the one hand, many argued that Straight Outta Compton intended to tell the story of the unification of a marginalized community against its oppressors, which it did with great success. Characters who were formerly the stuff of white America’s waking nightmares were humanized and imbued with a level of sensitivity and intellect that made them unfailingly likable. Especially in a time where police brutality, racially motivated profiling, and the disproportionate loss of black lives at the hands of law enforcement are very pressing issues. On top of that, the film, which features a primarily black cast and was directed by F. Gary Gray (who in an ironic twist was actually the cameraman for the Ice Cube segment that allegedly led to Barnes’ assault), was a box-office smash. All of these things make Straight Outta Compton a triumph and an affirmation that in the overwhelmingly whitewashed movie industry, black narratives, like black lives, do matter. Following the release of box office numbers Nicki Minaj put up this celebratory Instagram post:

It was a sentiment echoed by many celebrities and throughout the social media sphere. But the story of Dee Barnes, Michel’le and the other women who were battered, bruised and then forgotten offers an equally compelling narrative.

As a woman, it is difficult to overlook the fact that despite seminal N.W.A protest anthems like “F*ck tha Police”, which unapologetically took aim at law enforcement’s penchant for criminalizing melanated people, there are still N.W.A. songs that include lyrics like, “Smother your mother and make your sister think I love her.” There are also songs like “A Bitch iz a Bitch”, which, despite the intention to deliver a f*ck you of sorts to mainstream media for concentrating exclusively on the group’s misogyny rather than its at times powerful discourse on racial and socioeconomic inequality in America, is still sadly essentializing of women.

Image from Straight Outta Compton

In a recent Rolling Stone interview Ice Cube attempted to explain the song’s misogynistic overtones by saying that in his mind bitches and hoes exist in a different category than normal women. He then went on to state that upstanding ladies need not be offended by the song or come to the defense of said “bitches and hoes.” The irony is that the very same women who are lyrically denigrated and shamed are often still expected to come to the defense of black men when they are abused, mistreated, discriminated against and oppressed.

Brooklyn-based correspondent Jamilah Lemieux recently wrote an article for the Washington Post that stated, “It hurts to know that black women are (still!) expected to fall in line and celebrate any black male triumph, even when we are trampled in the process,” before going on to say, “When it comes to N.W.A, I guess I love myself – and my sisters – more.

Jamilah Lemieux

Walking the line between being black and a woman is difficult in this country. It can often feel as if our unique needs are not considered in dialogues about race or gender. And, if our needs even enter the conversation, we are often an afterthought; always secondary victims in what the majority considers a more important, larger struggle. It is my hope that one day women like Dee Barnes, Michell’e, Jamilah Lemieux, and even myself, will no longer feel like we have to walk any line or make any choice.

I am black, I am a woman, and I’d like to be treated fairly where both are concerned.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of Highsnobiety nor Titelmedia sites.

Words by Stephanie Smith-Strickland