F. Gary Gray’s recent film Straight Outta Compton was met with much critical acclaim and big box office numbers, earning praise and over $136 million dollars since its August 14th release. However, the film has also been met with backlash for its treatment of women of color.
There are many instances of standard objectification in the film — women are mainly featured as background flesh at pool parties or groupies — but writer Allison Davis was specifically drawn to a scene built around the much meme’d phrase, “Bye, Felicia,” originally seen in Gray’s film, Friday. If you haven’t seen the movie, the scene depicts Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy E hooking up with a bunch of women until a man comes looking for his girlfriend, Felicia, pounding on the door to start a fight. The NWA members scare him off, but they then kick Felicia out half-naked, closing the door in her face and saying, “Bye, Felicia.”
On its own, this scene did not, to my eye, appear particularly offensive. The mistreatment of a cheater has been something widely represented in mainstream culture: Nick Cassavetes’ The Other Woman is an entire film about getting revenge on a cheater, and the final scene of that film is gratuitously violent towards the male cheater in question. However, as Davis pointed out in her piece for The Cut, what matters in Straight Outta Compton is the context, both on a historical and personal level.
Historically, rap culture and music has not always been kind to black women, and Dr.Dre, a member of NWA and a producer on the film, faced charges for slamming a journalist and TV host named Dee Barnes against a wall in a nightclub in 1991. Davis, speaking on the subject for an NPR interview, noted that it was “insensitive” and “thoughtless” for the team behind Compton to not “contextualize a history of degradation of women.” She saw the film as symptomatic of a larger issue: the way society “treats black women in general…we’re throwaways.”
When I reached out to writer Ashley Ford over email, she furthered Davis’ point about disposability. “Black women’s lives and issues are mostly considered disposable in service to the reputations of black men,” she said. “Women don’t report being assaulted because they don’t want to put another black man in prison, and this behavior can be encouraged in different communities.”
No one backed up Davis’s comments on black women being treated as “throwaways” more than F. Gary Gray himself. When Davis reached out to bring her concerns to Gray, he seemed to take offense at her line of questioning, noting that you can’t always be politically correct in comedy or entertainment. “We should be focusing on how the police are treating innocent American citizens,” he said. “Let’s talk about something as important, if not more important, if you really want to go there.”
What Gray seems to be insinuating is that sexism / combating sexism isn’t a part of the NWA story or Gray’s vision for the film, and that it’s nit-picking to attack a film for being sexist when it’s raising a lot of awareness about racism and police brutality. This may be true: it may have compromised the NWA story to include stronger female characters, or to reference Dre’s history of violence. But that still leaves black women behind, positioned as sacrifices to a larger artistic vision — and to what Gray sees as a larger cause.
In my conversation with Ford, she pointed out that directors and artists have a right to be “able to put out there whatever [they] want to create,” and endure criticism as such. While she agreed that “the way black women are portrayed in this film isn’t exactly responsible,” she noted Compton was yet another example of what happens “when a biopic is made by the people whose lives it’s based on,” or, in other words, when men make movies about men.
This is a complex topic and I do not endeavor to find a solution — for me, this discussion created more questions than it did answers, and filtered my own view not only of Compton, but many other male-dominated films I’ve enjoyed. However, Davis’s point about a male director’s prerogative reminded me of a topic much addressed in the entertainment industry world I work in: we need more female directors, and more than that, we need more female directors of color. We need their voices shining spotlights over the kinds of issues that have long been swept under the rug of patriarchal artistic vision; we need them to populate the mainstream media so that black women’s lives can no longer be case aside.
But obviously, adding more black, female directors to the mix is not a blanket solution. Ultimately, this needs to not be a question of male vs. female perspectives in film — throwing a “versus” between sexes only poses a greater divide. If the most baseline definition of feminism means a belief that men and women of all colors should have equal rights, then in its most ideal manifestation, humanism would replace the word feminism, and there would be no need for competing representations and narratives in film, media and entertainment. So we turn to you (and us) as the next generation with that larger goal in mind, and this even larger question: how can we accomplish this?
Photograph via Forbes.