FilmDrunk

‘Straight Outta Compton,’ Dee Barnes, And F. Gary Gray Plays The Oprah Card


Straight Outta Compton
, while entertaining as hell, commits many sins of omission in its portrayal of NWA’s rise and fracture, the most talked about of which is probably Dr. Dre’s 1991 attack on journalist Dee Barnes. Barnes recently described the attack in a Gawker piece, detailing how it allegedly stemmed from a Pump It Up! segment Barnes hosted in which Ice Cube dissed NWA. Dre was mad at Barnes for supposedly making NWA “look like fools,” and slammed her head against a wall multiple times. Barnes says she was subsequently blackballed from entertainment journalism and still has migraines from the incident.

One of the most interesting bits of that story was Barnes’ revelation that the cameraman for that Pump It Up! segment had been none other than F. Gary Gray, the director of Straight Outta Compton. I don’t think that makes Gray in any way complicit in what happened to Barnes, but the fact that he made a movie in which a serial domestic abuser is portrayed as a sweet family man is much harder to excuse, even if it had to be that way to get Dre’s blessing (Dre was a producer on the film, after all). In fact, if anything, it just lends credibility to Barnes’ accusations that Dre was able to blackball her from working in media.

It turns out though, that a Dee Barnes scene was at one point included in Straight Outta Compton‘s script, as reported in the LA Times:

In the scene, the fictional Dre, “eyes glazed, drunk, with an edge of nastiness, contempt” (per noted from the script) spots Barnes at the party and approaches her.

“Saw that [expletive] you did with Cube. Really had you under his spell, huh? Ate up everything he said. Let him diss us. Sell us out.”

“I just let him tell his story,” Barnes’ character retorts, “That’s what I do. It’s my job.”

“I thought we were cool, you and me,” Dre fires back. “But you don’t give a [expletive]. You just wanna laugh at N.W.A, make us all look like fools.”

The conversation escalates, Barnes throws her drink in Dre’s face before he attacks her “flinging her around like a rag-doll, while she screams, cries, begs for him to stop.”


Gray responded to the omission, saying:

“The original editor’s cut was three hours and 30 minutes long, so we couldn’t get everything in the movie. We had to make sure we served the narrative; the narrative was about N.W.A. It wasn’t about side stories.

And

“There are so many things that you can add or subtract. Cube always said, ‘You can make five different N.W.A movies.’ We made the one we wanted to make.”

That there were a lot of “side stories” and versions of the NWA story that couldn’t possibly all be included in the film is true enough, but that justification gets pretty weak when you hold it up next to, say the scene where we see Ice Cube telling off an unidentified journalist, apropos of nothing. Or the part where Ice Cube is laughing at his own script to Friday.

Speaking of Friday callbacks, Gray was also criticized for a scene where (SPOILER ALERT) Eazy-E chases off a guy who showed up to NWA’s hotel room looking for his girlfriend, Felicia, who happened to be blowing Eazy-E at the time. According to original NWA manager Jerry Heller, this was based on something that Heller actually witnessed:

One night on the road, Heller got a call from Eazy. Come over to the hotel room to talk business, he says. Heller showed up and found Dre with Eazy in the bathroom, with, he writes, a “gorgeous naked girl [making] deep gulping noises as she fellated him.” Deadpan, Eazy rolled off some made-up issue: What’s up with the percentages on those latest royalties? Dutifully, Heller promised to check. He walked outside, shut the door, and waited a beat. Then, the familiar sounds of Dre and Eazy guffawing rolled in. [Grantland]

In the movie version though, Eazy grabs a machine gun and chases off the girl’s boyfriend, then, once they’re gone, shoves the topless girl out of the hotel by her head, dropping the famous Friday line, “BYE, Felicia.” (This really brought the house down at my screening, by the way).

In what seems like a pretty fair question, New York Magazine’s Allison P. Davis asked Gray why he decided to give the line such a weirdly sexist origin story, even while playing it for laughs.

Gray explained that the “brilliant” moment was fictitious and added spontaneously during a late-night shoot. The character’s name was Felicia in the script, and it was the actor who portrays young Ice Cube, his son O’Shea Jackson Jr., who thought they should add the reference.

“That just happened to be a fun moment that we capitalized on during the process of shooting,” he said. “Some people may feel like it’s the origin of ‘Bye, Felicia,’ but it’s a fun moment, a wink and a nod to the original Friday and a little bit of fun. It’s one of the funniest moments in the movie.” […]

I asked Gray how, as a director, he was able to reconcile the fun pop-culture reference with a moment of degradation. “I wouldn’t try to reconcile it at all,” he said. “If you’re looking to be politically correct in entertainment, especially as it relates to comedy, that’s the end of entertainment. If people want us to make entertainment in a certain way, you tell me how we should have shot the scene.”

I said I didn’t know and he went on, “That’s just an awful question. You know. It’s like, if Oprah says it’s a powerful movie, and we know how she feels about how women are depicted in film and entertainment and things like that — I feel like you’re digging. We should be focusing on how the police are treating innocent American citizens. What about that? Let’s talk about something as important, if not more important, if you really want to go there.”

I liked the movie, and God knows what F. Gary Gray had to go through to get it made, and the fact that he was around when some of the events depicted were going down just gives him more credibility in my mind. But man… that is a weak ass answer. “Why are we even talking about how a movie depicts women when police are abusing innocent citizens?” sounds a lot like “How can you talk about civil liberties at a time when our men and women of the military are risking their lives overseas?”

The root of the problem is that Gray seems to see the societal oppression (police and otherwise) of certain communities (a big theme of the film) as separate from domestic violence in those communities, and not related. The strongest part of Dee Barnes’ original piece is that she draws the connection.

Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at Straight Outta Compton’s activistic core. There is a direct connection 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. If the breadth of N.W.A.’s lyrical subject matter was guided by a certain logic, though, it was clearly a caustic logic.

Obviously we’re Monday morning quarterbacking here, but asking why some of this stuff wasn’t in the movie isn’t PC nitpicking, it’s constructive criticism. Working some of it into the movie makes for a more complex story, and probably a better movie; the difference between a breezy, fun biopic and a legitimate awards contender. The domestic abuse stuff wouldn’t even have made the movie less cathartic – Eazy-E called it out as perfectly in “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s” (not included in the movie) as Ice Cube called out the Jerry Heller in “No Vaseline” (virtually the entire song of which is included in the movie). Both awesome songs, incidentally.

But as they say, history is written by the winners and legitimized by Oprah.

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