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Straight Outta Compton's misogyny controversy, explained

Straight Outta Compton.
Straight Outta Compton.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For the second week in a row, Straight Outta Compton was the most-watched movie in America. It's made an estimated $111 million since it opened August 14. To get to the $100 million mark means the N.W.A bio-drama has crossed demographics and transcended its genre — it's not just rap aficionados watching the movie. It means that people who are unfamiliar with Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube are learning about them for the very first time. It means that people in suburban America are seeing this film. It means that people are listening to Dr. Dre's new album. It means that Compton has defied the expectations of an industry.

Compton is a success story about a survival story. At its heart, the film is about black survival in America. It makes no attempt to explain the origins of institutionalized racism or how we arrived to the time we're in. Instead, it treats racism as it is — an inescapable force that haunts black men and women in America. Compton's success is as much a testament to the talent of N.W.A as it is a celebration of overcoming the struggle of life in the inner city.

But one story that Compton didn't tell is getting almost as much attention as the film's success. That's the story of Dr. Dre's history of violence against women, which the film doesn't touch upon. The omission has sparked a new examination of his life, his songs, and his lyrics. It's ignited broader questions about why the film omitted this horrible chunk of history.

On Friday, Dre gave an apology to the women he abused, telling the New York Times: "I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives."

Here's why he apologized.

The actual incidents of violence against women that Straight Outta Compton left out

Compton's success is a bit of surprise. This summer was the year of the blockbuster — Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, and Minions were released, and Batman v Superman was originally supposed to join the fray (it will open in March 2016 instead). Compton flew under the radar, until it raked in $60 million on its opening weekend.

The Tuesday after its premiere — August 18 — rapper and former TV host Dee Barnes wrote an essay for Gawker explaining that the movie left out Dre's history of physically abusing women, including herself. She wrote about an incident in 1991 when Dre beat her:

Three years later — in 1991 — I would experience something similar, only this time, I was on my back, and the knee was in my chest. That knee did not belong to a police officer, but Andre Young, the producer/rapper who goes by Dr. Dre. When I saw the footage of California Highway Patrol officer Daniel Andrew straddling and viciously punching Marlene Pinnock in broad daylight on the side of a busy freeway last year, I cringed. That must have been how it looked as Dr. Dre straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom at the Po Na Na Souk nightclub in 1991.

In court, Dre pleaded no contest to the assault, and Barnes's civil suit was settled.

Barnes came forward and wrote the essay because her abuse wasn't depicted in the movie. Barnes explains she didn't think there would be a reenactment of her abuse; that might be too difficult and graphic for a film to handle delicately. Rather, she writes, she expected and wanted to see some acknowledgment of Dre's history of violence against women.

Barnes isn't the only woman Dre has assaulted. Michel'le (Michelle Touissant), a singer and Dre's former fiancée, told hip-hop site VladTV that she didn't expect to be in the movie or for it to acknowledge her abusive relationship with Dre. "If they start from where they start from, I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat up and told to sit down and shut up," she said.

Not acknowledging Dre's violence is attributed to the fact that Dre and Ice Cube are producers on the film. The concern is that they — as with anyone producing his own biopic — won't be or can't be objective when presenting themselves and their history.

Dr. Dre's apology is a reminder to critics of what they missed

While it's easy to see why Ice Cube and Dr. Dre wouldn't want to include the dark spots of their histories, it's a bit more difficult to figure out why critics didn't bring it up in their reviews. Variety's critic, Scott Foundas, weaves knowledge about the group's songs into his review, but doesn't mention the film's treatment (or lack thereof) of women. Complex's Ian Servantes wrote about how dark and surprisingly funny the movie was ("Police brutality aside, Compton is far from grim. It plays surprisingly humorous as it delves into the characters of Dre, Cube, and, particularly, Eazy-E.") but doesn't mention Dre's history. Richard Brody at the New Yorker spent 189 words reviewing the movie, only saying that the "personal lives of the musicians are mere backdrop."

This isn't to say that Compton is a bad film. It's not. But there isn't anything wrong in asking why this story is being told in a way that evades a major part of the stories about these men and the art they created. The failure of these critics to mention N.W.A's misogynistic songs poses a question about whether critics have a responsibility to do so.

"Wasn’t every writer expected to at least give the, 'I know they’re sexist, but' caveat here?" Jamilah Lemieux, a writer and editor, wrote for the Washington Post. "In the wake of the movie’s success, it seems audiences across the country may cast aside N.W.A.’s potent brand of misogyny and focus only on the group’s willingness to speak plainly about their hatred of police. Unfortunately, it seems they hated black women just as much."

On Friday, just before the movie's second weekend, Dre acknowledged the movie's sidestepping of misogyny and his abusive past. "Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did," Dre told the New York Times, responding to Barnes's article and the women who came forward to speak about the violence Dre inflicted on them.

"I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives," he added.

N.W.A is a huge part of hip-hop's misogynistic origin story

"You’d have to be in pretty deep denial to not recognize that sexism is an essential element of the group’s brand," Kim Trent wrote in a column for the Detroit Free Press. "I always found the group’s take on women disturbing and, at times, disgusting. But it’s impossible to knock N.W.A’s hustle and talent and the impact its music had on our culture — for better or worse."

When critics talk about artists and their art, there's often an understanding that the two don't have to be connected. For example, you can appreciate Roman Polanski's movies but still think he's a pretty rotten man who raped an underage girl in 1977. Usually, the less nefarious the personal life of an artist, the less insistence there is on separating their art from themselves (see: the way we treat James Franco and his performance art–like personal life). There's absolutely nothing scientific about cleaving the personal life of an artist from his or her art.

What makes Dre's case so difficult is that his lyrics, N.W.A's lyrics, and hip-hop are all based on personal narrative and authenticity. Personal experience in hip-hop, and in genres like blues and soul music, transcends structure.

"Our art is the reflection of our reality," Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) says in the film.

N.W.A rapped about police violence because they experienced it firsthand — this is what makes the movie so powerful. But that same authenticity underscores their lyrics about "bitches" and "hoes" and reveals how misogynistic these men could be.

Lemieux broke down the lyrics in her column:

On the song which provides the film’s title, Eazy spits "Smother your mother and make your sister think I love her," and "You think I give a damn about a b*tch, I ain’t a sucker. " On "Just Don’t Bite It, " Ren opts to receive oral sex from a woman because "There’s a slight chance if I f**k she might burn me, and then I might have to shoot the ‘ho." And this was before the Cube-less second album "Niggaz4Life," when the group took their misogyny up a notch (with tracks like"One Less Bitch" and "I’d Rather F**k You.")

If hip-hop is about truth, then the truth for these men at this point in their lives was that women were, at best, disposable sex toys or, at worst, conniving traps. And it's not like Dr. Dre and Ice Cube weren't influential or their misogynistic lyrics weren't a huge part of their success. The popularity of these lyrics crystallized an idea of robbing humanity from black women — something that artists after them (including Dre's protégés) would mimic. Director Ava DuVernay put it succinctly and painfully:

Where is entertainment journalism's place in a movie like Straight Outta Compton?

When I first read Barnes and Lemieux's pieces, and the reviews that didn't mention N.W.A's misogynistic lyrics (as well as its homophobic, gay-bashing ones), one of the first things that came to mind was a recent article about Tom Cruise by Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic. Gilbert details how, during a promotional tour for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, not one person (even Jon Stewart) had the guts or gall to ask Cruise about Scientology. Gilbert wrote:

Tom Cruise as an institution depends on a degree of complicity between the people who profit from his movies and the people who pay to see them, with everyone involved agreeing not to ask too many tough questions and ruin the fun. The fact that reporters and television entertainers also buy into this deal is disappointing, even if it isn’t ultimately so surprising.

That could explain why no one really went out of their way to ask Dre about beating up women prior to Barnes's article (during the film's promotional tour). It could also explain why director F. Gary Gray didn't put those elements into his film.

"We couldn't get everything into the movie," Gray said during a Q&A with fans. "What we had to do was make sure we served the narrative, and that narrative was about N.W.A. It wasn't about a lot of side stories. We had to focus on the story that was pertinent to our main characters."

But Gilbert's assertion — that entertainment journalists abide by the rules set by actors and celebrities — doesn't fully explain why critics, who don't have to answer to a celebrity or even interact with them, wouldn't at least mention it in their reviews.

The truth is darker than that — it's that society often doesn't fully believe women who step up against their famous abusers.

Over the past few months, we've watched Bill Cosby's legacy shrivel up as women spoke publicly (35 talked to New York magazine) about how he had sexually assaulted them. The downside: These assaults happened more than 30 years ago.

More recently, ESPN was taken to task for a documentary it shot about Floyd Mayweather and how it skirted around the boxer's history of domestic abuse. Last year, we saw Ray Rice find defenders (including Whoopi Goldberg) after video surfaced of him knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator. And Chris Brown still has a loyal fan base even after beating Rihanna to a pulp.

We care about the two latter cases more because we had pictures and photographic proof of the assaults. That's gross in itself — that we need to see "evidence" instead of believing these women at their word. And if we didn't have those pictures or that video, we might be less inclined to accept that.

And that's what makes Compton's omission so disturbing.

Not depicting the misogyny these men are responsible for is essentially saying these women, especially black women, don't matter. If we're a society that sadly needs massive amounts of evidence (see: Cosby) of women being beaten or sexually assaulted to believe their stories, then Compton's evasion of the issue again reaffirms a message that women are irrelevant. That's its own kind of abuse.