“You promised me you wouldn’t kill me.”–Natasha McKenna
When the full red-band trailer for Straight Outta Compton was released, it was met with the type of fervent fanboy (or -girl) behavior that nowadays only seemed resigned to Avengers movies or the upcoming continuation of the Star Wars mythos. The scrutiny was the same too; people poring over (and celebrating) the film–a clash of music, American, black and period-piece history–praising its ability to get the casting, the look, the feel, the throwback-ness of the movie right. It also tapped into a vein; smartly (though grossly) using “matters” (“The Movie That Matters”) as a not-too-subtle connection to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it created the notion that seeing this movie was not only pertinent to the current times, but that somehow, by even the sheer act of purchasing a ticket to this movie, you weren’t seeing a movie, you were exerting a political will, a sentiment, one that ranged everything from “f-ck the police” (small “f”) to the BLM movement, to the freedom of Black expression, to the advocacy for the viable spot for Black music, hip-hop (now the backdrop for everything from Domino’s Pizza to Kia cars) in American history.
It was, in many ways, an “our story, so f-ck the establishment”–it’s hearty band of Black men banding together evoke not only the greatness we knew would emerge because of their imprinted legacies, but also because the origin story of N.W.A. and movies like it prick into the underdog/vigilante/anti-establishment story Americans love: the movie felt like Ocean’s 11 meets Robin Hood, Band of Thieves and The Avengers: Age of Ultron all rolled into one, with a similar message: powerful, oppressive white men need to be careful about what their positions in society will wrought. N.W.A. like the many of our ‘outside the lines’ heroes, weren’t dangerous only due to their existence, but the idea that their existence could inspire copycats and, perhaps even more terrifying, something even more powerful than what they were trying to tamp down.
But yet, for all its vigilante bluster and heroism, Straight Outta Compton revealed itself to be its own worst enemy. The film was (rightfully) pilloried for its handling of black women: either they were backdrop props in terms of mothers and wives; sex party mops in like the various hedonistic hotel parties; or narrative drops like the conscious omission of Michel’le and Dee Barnes who suffered horrific beatings at the hands of Dr. Dre.
At this point, we all know the rest of this. After several critical and cultural observations and complaints drew the notoriously enigmatic Dre from the shadows to issue not one, but two apologies (combined together, these quarter-ass statements make for one, dutiful half-assed apology)–not surprising for a man who made his biggest fortune crafting a device that doubles as a great noise cancellation tool.
More troubling though, was the frequent collective shrug about the Dee Barnes/Michel’le stories. People seemed to simultaneously view and acknowledge that these horrific events happened, but they seemed largely treated like “DVD extras”; odd and obscure bit-pieces that ultimately just didn’t quite fit the narrative of the story that we wanted to be told; after all, once again, if Dre, Cube, N.W.A. are your Avengers, who wants to see that once Capt. America smacked Sharon Carter around a team meeting while Iron Man, Thor and Hawkeye stood around and watched?
Stories and incidents like that get buried deep in the appendices of the heroe’s journey, obscuring the fact that maybe, at its heart, what we’re really celebrating isn’t the triumph of the underdog wriggling free and giving voice to a silenced America, but that much more ingrained American drive: a lucrative paycheck. It relegates Dee Barnes and the faceless women in the various hotel room after parties not as actual women, but more as the necessary offerings and obstacles to someone else’s greatness. They’re disposed of or disposable/ They’re the tracks that don’t make the final record and the silenced stories of every bitch, hoe, trick incidentally dropped in any number of N.W.A. collective or individual songs. Even in viewing the trailers and listening to the soundtrack of the music for the film, it’s hard to deny that these self-made men, their lives collectively Gamma-radiated by a blighted and violent urban America, owed a great deal to a great number of women along the way. Taking it all in, you might wonder why the movie didn’t go with a more honest title that captured all of this:
Escape from LA, By Felicia
“There’s not one moment where she’s in control.”–Pete Early, mental health activist, speaking on Natasha McKenna’s death
But then again, we’ve been here before. Earlier this year the same story-beats played themselves out in the form of the Bill Cosby rape testimonies; a series of predatory stories. It set up a familiar series of retorts from doubters about the veracity of these women’s claims: Bill Cosby, more than even N.W.A., is the sort of black, and American, icon that’s transcended circumstances to not only become something great, but greater than himself. Like N.W.A., Cosby had moved into a realm where he’d become less a celebrity and more a public property that we had all a stake in. The idea that Dr. Huxtable, Fat Albert, hell, even Leonard (Part 6) could be anything less than good seemed incredulous to the point of fiction.
After all, Cosby was our Obama before Obama; an all-encompassing, -inspiring Black Man in America whose articulation, family values, humor and bemusement about the world. Like Obama, Cosby publicly exuded an affability and charisma that seemed to suggest, what ME, worry about racism? I’m too damn cool–which was an intoxicating tincture that simultaneously gave Black America hope and White America assurance and relief that enough change had happened in the country–Cosby’s ascendance meant the opportunity for all of us to dance in our kitchens and on our stairs to jazz tunes and warm our cold toes under bed covers with our loved one. Cliff and Claire not only convinced us it’s all alright; Cosby crafted an American story that convinced all of us it’s all over, too.
Cosby’s accusers, the various women he raped over a decades-long career, faced the usual onslaughts of doubts. If they were average, everyday-women (white collar professionals; young models/actresses) the rap on them was that they were seen as almost vampiric; women that were seeking nothing other than to, at best, use their “poor judgement” in a situation to usurp the power, wealth or esteem of a Successful Black Man in America. If they weren’t–your Janice Dickensons and Beverly Johnsons, for example–they were instead seeking to hop on the rape train and cash-in (literally or figuratively) on a runaway train of “wild accusations”.
In predictable, dutiful fashion, Cosby’s community–ranging from Phylicia Rashad to Jill Scott–rushed in to protect, deflect and defend–even as the stories, several of whom included Black women in them–continued to pour in.
It’s not hard to imagine how Cosby acting as a one-man show in a fashion similar to the hedonistic parties of N.W.A. and, to be clear, loads of other music/entertainer groupies. In the presence of often unchecked power, bizarre things can happen. The fragrance of privilege, position and opportunity can often collude to put anyone in compromising, dangerous positions. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine that a handsome, stately, articulate man–successful, genial, generous–could invite you to a room to talk about your career and how he could help it, and, even in the pragmatic realm of thinking that something sexual may have been implicitly, or even explicitly, mentioned to occur–that the end result–this same man drugging and raping you–is unacceptable. Fast-forward (and in Cosby’s case, parallel or simultaneous to) an N.W.A. after party where the numbers of participants and the danger might conceivably multiply.
The less salacious versions of these groupie and group-sex stories are always usually deftly framed as “out of control”–vast consumption of alcohol and drugs; a flooding of stimulus; a barrage of sensations and experiences bundled into one, confined space–a general “all rules are gone for the night”; a reckless abandon to feel, for even a moment or minutes, close enough to luminary stars, to the lights and the lofts of powerful figures. To come close to again, the real American Dream: the lucrative place on Olympus, where there isn’t wont for anything as long as you can buy, take and have anything you want. To be in a dream-like fugue state where you’re no longer who you are; you’re something more, greater–those nights at parties, in cities, in clubs and bars where the music, the people the experiences all make you feel out-of-body. The precarious feeling that if you only, just only hang on, for a little longer, you’ll potentially peer over the lip of your mundane life and glimpse something greater.
It can’t be hard to imagine that so many women who came to Cosby’s or N.W.A.’s rooms on any given night were drawn by the allure, the promise of all these things.
It can’t be hard to imagine too, then, that more than a few were taken advantage of in those same situations, that at some point, more often than we or Hollywood would care to publicly narrate, more than once someone had that dream shattered, that they woke up and realized what science has told us about stars: yes, they burn bright enough to light your night, but many are cold and distant.
Imagine that. Scores of black women waking from either Quaaludes or other substance or circumstantial stupors, wondering what just happened. Waking up empty and alone. Or worse, in the company of others, and dismissed. It takes the nose of the phrase Bye Felicia.
Imagine the decades it potentially stretches across in these two instances–a long, slow, repeated high-five between Cosby and N.W.A., drunk off power, disposable of others, passing the baton of a bizarre set of acts together, their arms outstretched not only over the heads of so many women along the way, but a sleeping public, too.
Imagine them taking the stage together to account for these stories now that so many of us have woken up. It could cross every city and community they’d touched. A public-accountable reunion. Their ongoing freedom has already told us what we already know: “Fuck the police”. So we’d call this something that appropriately captures the passive, disdainful way Dre, Cube and Cosby have all addressed the way that they’ve treated Black women over time.
We’d call it Groggy-style.
“Some of them really [are] un-rape-able… I just look at them and go, ‘You don’t want that. Get out of here.’”–Damon Wayans speaking on Bill Cosby’s serial raping.