I recently saw “Straight Outta Compton,” a biopic of the legendary rap group N.W.A. I am more than aware of the controversy surrounding the group’s misogynistic lyrics and N.W.A. member Dr. Dre’s previous abuse of women. Thus, I fully respect several of my friends’ decision not to see the movie. However, I felt in order to truly critique it, I needed to see it.
Besides, if I’m being honest, hip-hop has been a large part of the soundtrack of my life. I listened to N.W.A.’s music when I was younger, and I have strong memories and opinions of the impact, both good and bad, that they have had on the music industry. While I have always generally preferred more socially conscious hip-hop, such as a Tribe Called Quest and Talib Kweli, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t listen to N.W.A, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre during their heyday.
Continuing the theme of honesty, “Straight Outta Compton” was superb. It was informative (although like all biopics, we know they took some creative liberties), well acted, entertaining and relevant for today’s climate of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. N.W.A. spoke for a generation of young, black men who felt marginalized and invisible. They brought attention to issues of urban poverty and police brutality. Do I wish that they told the story of all young, black people—including young, black women—and that they didn’t treat women as mere sexual objects on many of their songs? Of course. But you can’t help but watch the movie and recognize the impact their voices had on the national discourse on police brutality and providing a voice for the marginalized.
That said, I’m not going to give N.W.A a pass for their misogyny and over-the-top gangsta lyrics. The movie did not depict the impact their lyrics had on black youth. While it gave a voice to some youth, it gave others the misguided assumption of what it means to be black. As someone who grew up in a middle class black suburb in Prince George’s County, I saw first-hand the impact of some of the lyrics. I saw peers start to associate a gangsta image and behavior with blackness, even though all of their neighbors were black, were not involved in criminal activity, worked hard and provided for their families. A dangerous trend of “keeping it real” started, where many black youth felt they had to dress, speak and act in a certain manner to be considered black. That’s not necessarily N.W.A.’s fault, although rapping constantly about shooting people didn’t help. Keep in mind, the members themselves didn’t live a gangsta life—well, Eazy kinda did — but they were more witnesses to it.
I will also not give N.W.A. a pass for the misogyny in their lyrics. “Straight Outta Compton” did give viewers a taste of that aspect of their music, but the viewer does not grasp the impact it had on how young men view women and how young women view themselves. That said, I think Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who produced the movie, used it as an opportunity to sanitize and cement their legacies. While critiquing lyrics and behavior is not the role of a biopic, accurately portraying it is. Before seeing the movie, I heard the criticism about the movie omitting Dr. Dre’s history of domestic violence. Dre’s super fans would have you believe that it did not fit into the storyline because the movie was about N.W.A. and not Dre. However, after watching “Straight Outta Compton,” I felt that Dre’s relationship with and abuse of R&B singer Michel’le was a glaring omission. The movie gave significant time to the romantic relationships of the group members. They showed Eazy’s relationship with Tomica Woods-Wright, who he eventually married. They showed Ice Cube’s relationship with his wife over the years, and they showed Dre getting closer to a woman toward the end of the movie, who he ended up marrying, although the marriage is not shown. Thus, they had to go out of their way to omit Dre’s relationship with Michel’le, who he was with for several years and they had a child together. Authentically showing this abusive relationship could have been done in a way to show that Dre has changed (assuming he has), without erasing the past.
The movie showed the grind that N.W.A. went through to make it. It showed how far the government, both local and federal, would go to silence voices that are critiquing its racist and abusive practices. It showed how common it is for artists, particularly black artists, to be tricked or taken advantage of and not given their full earnings. It showed the importance of being business savvy, understanding contracts, and having control over your music and your brand. It is not an accident that the two members that are the most successful post-N.W.A.—Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — are the two that realized that they were being taken advantage of and left the group to start their own companies. This movie told a lot of stories that need to be heard. It’s too bad that a group best known for reality rap shielded and sugarcoated an inconvenient part of their reality to maintain their now-mainstream image.
Lateefah Williams is a regular contributor to the Washington Blade.