As a Compton resident and cultural film critic, I must admit that I was a bit hesitant to see Straight Outta Compton. As with any movie that seeks to depict “the hood,” I wondered if this one would advance or regress the narrative surrounding Black lives, a question that is always at the forefront of my mind when assessing films. To my delight, Straight Outta Compton was not only entertaining, but also spoke to our current situation in a way that I was not expecting. In an engaging two and a half hours, the film provided insight into the dynamic history of NWA, perfectly captured the racial and political climate of the early 90s, and served as a moving tribute to the late Eazy E.
But while I appreciate the film for its scathing critique of police brutality, I could not excuse the way that women were portrayed and reduced down to mere accessories. Of the women featured in the film, all of them were either topless, twerking, or tragically underdeveloped. Aside from Dr. Dre’s mother, who is introduced mid-rant, there was not one female character that existed independently of a man. Though the film is about an all-male rap group, there were plenty of missed opportunities to humanize and add dimension to the women in their lives.
The erasure was so glaring that even the most unsuspecting eyes could catch it. By the time a woman other than Dr. Dre’s ranting mother finally spoke, it felt forced and out of place. As the deliberate cast of light-skinned women finally began to recite their lines, it got so awkward that people in the audience started questioning what was going on. As I shook my head and raised my hands in confusion, the guy next to me murmured “what?” in response to yet another contrived line of female dialogue. I can’t go into depth without giving away spoilers, but I’m definitely interested in dissecting the film scene-by-scene at a later date. (Stay tuned.)
While there is no doubt that women are routinely degraded and objectified in hip-hop circles, that is not an excuse to repeat the same patterns in films pertaining to hip-hop communities. Instead of drawing attention to the fact that the women in these men’s lives were mistreated and, in some cases, abused, the film normalized this behavior and perpetuated the same cycle of violence and erasure.
To the filmmakers’ relative credit, other prominent characters—namely MC Ren and DJ Yella—also suffered from hollow development. Fortunately, there were plenty of fully fleshed out men to make up for this oversight. In the case of the women, however, there was no silver lining. In keeping with the traditions of Hollywood, the film failed to give women the same amount of attention and detail freely given to men. Although this was not surprising, it was most certainly disappointing given the film’s other revolutionary qualities.
As we saw, women were integral to the development and success of the men in NWA. As such, their characters should have been given the same level of depth and humanity that were afforded the male characters. And for the record, this is not about wanting to turn a male-centered movie into a feminist manifesto. This is about giving women the screen time and character development that they deserve. In the event that additional scenes that delved deeper into their lives had to be cut for time’s sake, my question is: why? Why was their development regarded as non-essential to the story if, in fact, it was?
Since the films release, many of my Facebook friends have been questioning why so many feminists are expecting and demanding more from male filmmakers. To that, I say that I expect more from everyone who is profiting off of the communities that they are underrepresenting. I expect more from all filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, given that we’ve experienced this form of erasure and misrepresentation firsthand.
My grievances are less about Straight Outta Compton and more about the routine disregard for female characters in film. I would never expect a script featuring underdeveloped characters to get made, and yet it happens all the time, but only to characters who happen to be women. Women who happen to always be supporting, but never principal to the story.
My issue was never with the hundreds of scantily clothed women congregated around fully-clothed men at a pool party. Parties like the ones depicted happen in real life and were a part of NWA’s culture. To debate that would be nonsensical. My issue lies with this film’s erasure of the women who were supposed to be more than big butts and light skin. The women who attended multiple recording sessions and business meetings. Why were their names only mentioned in passing? Why were their stories an afterthought? Because they weren’t important or simply because they were women?
I initially had a hard time understanding why both men and women alike were so eager to defend this aspect of the film, but then I remembered that this is how sexism is supposed to work. We’re trained to subjugate and disregard women and then question those who challenge their oppression. We’re taught to default to male-centered narratives, even if we evade nuance by excluding the female perspective. We’re supposed to defend men at the expense of women, even if the women are right.
The proper response to my critiques should not be “shut up and go make your own movie.” No form of art is ever exempt from critique, and by dismissing the very real concerns of women, you are only doing the work of male supremacy. Not to mention, such a response ignores the fact that women are deeply underrepresented in the film industry and often lack the resources to “go and make their own movie.”
I write about the representations of women and people of color in media because it directly pertains to me. As a filmmaker and as a Black woman, I feel that it is my responsibility to raise the concerns that only I can. I do this because, unfortunately, most men aren’t thinking about how the erasure of women within their scripts impacts society at-large, just as most white people aren’t considering the implications of casting Black folks in stereotypical and subordinate roles.
I shouldn’t have to choose between supporting a Black film and defending a woman’s right to a basic character arc. Black films that seek to advance the narrative should be inherently intersectional, for it is not truly revolutionary unless it includes all of us. That is not to say that every film needs to feature a character from every oppressed demographic imaginable in order to be considered progressive. But it does mean that all characters within the context of any given story are deserving of depth and attention, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Overall, Straight Outta Compton truly was a great film and brought new life to a group and culture that is largely misunderstood. From the creative genius and drama behind our favorite hip-hop jams to the radical politics that changed a nation, the film accurately depicted one of the most important times in hip-hop history. For these reasons, I support the film as a whole and plan to see it again, but I refuse to stay silent in the name of faux solidarity.