One of the virtues of a movie such as "Straight Outta Compton" is that it deals with a past not too far gone. Films that try too hard to capture the current moment can feel forced (see under: Middle East action dramas circa the mid-2000s), while movies that go too far back can come off as dusty, especially those with a pop-culture spin.
But "Compton" -- which primarily tells the story of a young N.W.A and its members Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E in the Los Angeles of a quarter-century ago -- strikes a better balance. It's told from a certain perspective-engendering distance, yet its subjects are not only still relevant, but still very much around.
Unfortunately for the film’s participants, that also means some other people are still very much around, people who have a different take on the events depicted on screen. On Tuesday that came to a head when Dee Barnes, a former TV host and hip-hop journalist, stepped forward to describe her experience with Dr. Dre.
In a widely read essay on Gawker--if you haven't seen it yet, you can check it out here--Barnes told of what happened to her, and of what didn't happen to her in the movie:
“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,” she recounted, elaborating on an incident that resulted in Dr. Dre pleading no contest and serving probation. “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.”
She goes on to describe other attacks by Dr. Dre and the general mistreatment of women by the group, concluding that “the biggest problem with 'Straight Outta Compton' is that it ignores several of N.W.A’s own harsh realities.”
It's a damning depiction of a group of artists, suggesting that, whatever his gifts in the studio, Dr. Dre in particular was a misogynist with violent and disturbing tendencies. This is a sharp contrast with how moviegoers might see him. Dr. Dre in the film is a sensitive and thoughtful soul, especially when compared with his erratically violent one-time partner Suge Knight. But words such as erratic and violent, according to Barnes, apply to Dr. Dre too.
The account makes for a complex web. It turns a victim (Dr. Dre, who suffers undeniable abuse at the hands of the police in the film as he did in real life) into a perpetrator, and at exactly the moment he is being most mythologized. It also lifts up the flap of misogyny in the hip-hop community, something the movie otherwise peeks at only fleetingly. Barnes' compellingly described how she was blacklisted in the hip-hop community after the incident as a result, she says, of Dr. Dre's clout.
And the essay juxtaposes the victimization of the black community with what it argues are more troubling issues within it -- in fact, it draws a parallel between the two. “There is a direct connection," Barnes writes, "between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy." (Dr. Dre has no comment on Barnes' essay on this time, said a Universal spokesperson, and a spokesman for the musician did not reply to a request for comment. Dr. Dre had recently offered some general regret for that time in his life, as recounted here.)
The reaction to Barnes' essay has been swift in many quarters, with some urging a new reading of the film that until now had been a largely benign story of brotherhood. Barnes' essay -- which documents well-known events afresh with a raw and personal power (the very skill, incidentally, that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube employ as successful poets and rappers) -- is the rare piece of writing to make us rethink the compelling images of a new movie. What had largely been a feel-good summer flick has now become a suspect touchstone. And how you feel about it says a lot about how you feel some much larger issues.
Some of those reactions are of course motivated by something other than a pure concern for women’s rights. Whatever Dre's shortcomings -- and to hear Barnes tell it, they are many and upsetting -- not everyone jumping on this issue has such noble causes at heart; some are inclined to use it for an anti-hip-hop agenda, or worse, much as in the early days of hip-hop itself.
But most of us find ourselves legitimately wondering where to land. Indeed, what’s notable about this newest development is how it flips the script on a story that itself was flipping the script. One of "Straight Outta Compton’s" most significant achievements is that it took gangsta rappers, a group often painted in monochrome by a shocked media (as a few entertaining scenes in the film show) and came along and added another color, one of sympathetic likability, people who even in their most provocative moments were playing characters. Now along comes Barnes to add a very contrasting hue to the palette.
As it turns out, the filmmakers themselves may have grappled with these contradictions. Screenwriter Jonathan Herman suggested in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he actually included scenes in his script that addressed these events, including, potentially, Dr. Dre's attack on Barnes.
"There is a lot more that might have provided context or assuaged people, and it will be interesting when the DVD comes out how people might feel,” Herman said, alluding to a potential 3 1/2 hour edition with more context and detail. “There's a richer version in which it's maybe not as one-sided in showing the women as either simply supportive partners or tossed aside."
Of course, length may not have been the only reason the film skipped past certain moments. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were both producers on the movie, causing a number of critics -- including Grantland's Wesley Morris and The Times' Kenneth Turan -- to wonder how much was put through the pasteurizer as a result. (Director F. Gary Gray was, in a strange turn, the cameraman who filmed Barnes’ interview with N.W.A that prompted Dr. Dre to go off on Barnes in the first place, something that offers its own cause for speculation.)
What's interesting about the film business is how it gives a platform to the powerful.
Hip-hop may have been a way for people such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube to level the playing field, allowing them to pull themselves up to the stratum of the cultural elite. But movies reward those elites themselves. Hollywood, like history, is written by the winners.
And yet here comes the modern media world, with its contrarian-seeking platforms and social media megaphones, to offer another avenue. And so nearly 25 years after an incident, an attempt by the movie business to record events one way is thwarted by a woman who makes a case of a victimization that, to the knowledge and interest of very few, has continued to this day. Wherever you fall on the film, Barnes' essay is a sign of lone-voice power against a corporate-funded mainstream. Ironically, a humble-beginnings rapper such as Dr. Dre would be proud such tools are now available for easy use, even if he may not like what they're being used for.