The Outrageous Failure Of Straight Outta Compton

Photo: Rex USA.
Nearly every biopic that Hollywood produces is met with backlash. It’s practically impossible to accurately depict all events of a person's life, group, or historical event without leaving something out — or getting something wrong. Mark Zuckerburg called bullshit on the accuracy of The Social Network (released in 2010), which was based on a book about the genesis of Facebook. The only thing he says they had right was his hoodie-and-jeans fashion sense. Responding to anger over the non-cohesive image of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007), co-writer Oren Moverman admitted, “Biopics can get hung up on authenticity, but our film is constantly lying.” When the Aaliyah biopic, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, aired on Lifetime in 2014, Missy Elliot and Timbaland, producers and friends of the late singer, took to social media — furious about the film’s depiction of Aaliyah’s life. An internet backlash was sparked that raged for days. These types of gripes are part of the package deal when filmmakers make a movie about real life people. The line between reality and fiction becomes blurred, creative license sometimes trumps truth, and devoted fans get pissed. But, some twists of the truth are more damaging than others. In the new film, Straight Outta Compton — about pioneering hip-hop group N.W.A. and its members, including Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre. — there’s a glaring omission: Dr. Dre’s brutal 1991 assault of Dee Barnes, journalist and TV personality. Her crime? Interviewing Ice Cube, (who had recently quit the group over royalty disputes), for a TV segment that was supposed to solely focus on the remaining members of N.W.A. According to court documents, the Los Angeles Times, and countless re-tellings of the event, it went down something like this: Dr. Dre approached Barnes at a private club in Hollywood, grabbed her hair, and bashed her face against a brick wall. And that was only the beginning. Barnes recalls the entire incident in an op-ed published on Gawker this week, which calls out the absence of the attack in the film. In her essay, she’s not asking for a dramatization of the attack, but she wants an acknowledgement that it did happen. “I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend who recently summed up their relationship this way: “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.” "But what should have been addressed is that it occurred. When I was sitting there in the theater, and the movie’s timeline skipped by my attack without a glance, I was like, ‘Uhhh, what happened?’ Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A., I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history.”
Straight Outta Compton shares a title with N.W.A.’s debut album, which came out in 1988. It depicted the grizzly realities of life for inner-city Black people: murder, drugs, gangs, political oppression, racism, and hopelessness. It set ablaze the world of rap, provoked outrage by horrified suburban white parents, and led to Congressional hearings on issues of censorship and free speech. A large part of what made it so incendiary was its bravado. Commentary on police brutality didn’t just present facts of injustice. It came with threats to retaliate, and with semi-automatic weapons. Anecdotes about the crack epidemic and gang warfare in the Black community included admissions of drive-by shootings set to a party beat. Tales of domestic violence and pimping women (consistently called "bitches" and "hos") weren't cautionary tales of a broken community, but a bragging right. Boasting about their mistakes, and even crimes rappers had committed was at the very essence of the era known as gangsta rap, which N.W.A. helped usher in. Rape, abuse, pimping, selling drugs, and even murder became badges of honor in the never-ending competition between rap artists to showcase the most authentic representation of street life. Some of the tales are true, some merely represent things artists saw, and others are fabrication. But the image was all that mattered. The absence of Barnes’ beating in Straight Outta Compton is contradictory to the very point of hip-hop, which is to expose the ills of society, even the artists’ own. Not only does it disrespect (again) the woman who endured a man twice her size bashing her head against walls, choking her, and stomping on her fingers, it also misrepresents what the group stood for — which made it both divisive and extremely successful. Shortly following the incident between Dr. Dre and Barnes, members of N.W.A. addressed the attack in a more, let’s say, “authentic” way. In an interview with MTV News, MC Ren said, “That’s what she gets. I hope she get it again.” Eazy-E and DJ Yella nodded at his side, as he reiterates: “She did something she knows she did and she got beat down. And I hope it happens again.” In a June 1991 interview in The Source, Eazy-E did more than nod. Here's his explanation for the incident: “The bitch deserved it. She knew that. We were closer than that, we were like family, we’ve been knowin’ her for a long time. It’s business.” Being so callous about a clear case of assault proves that the primary objective for all of N.W.A’s members at the time was to project an image of, “Don’t fuck with us.” But now, in their life story, the members of the group want to project an impossible reality. As Barnes says, “They’re trying to stay hard and look like good guys.” There’s no such thing as a gangster with a heart of gold. After the death of Eazy-E in 1995, N.W.A. split up for good. Its members grew up, moved on, and forged different careers that didn’t require constantly upping their bad-guy reputations. The surviving members of N.W.A. are arguably all better men today than they were in the ’90s. Dr. Dre even sort of apologized for the incident with Barnes in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, and chalked it up to being young and stupid. But Straight Outta Compton isn’t about these modern, maybe reformed men. It’s about the young Black rebels who proudly dubbed themselves “gangsters,” called for riots against prejudiced law enforcement, and spoke about women as affectionately as one might reference a moldy dish sponge. This is a film about the making of a notorious brand, created by notoriously flawed individuals who made their very careers off of flaunting those flaws. To hold up the legacy of N.W.A is to maintain its street cred. And the only way to do that is with the truth.

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