Straight Outta Compton: Another step in the legacy of erasing Black women

This post contains spoilers for the film Straight Outta Compton.

Straight Outta Compton crushed the box office this weekend, providing commentary on street life and shining a bright light on police brutality in the 80s and 90s. The film is groundbreaking in terms of subject – a biopic of Black men whose names are not Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Much like the lyrics of NWA’s anthem “Fuck Tha Police,” Straight Outta Compton gives the police industrial complex the middle finger with many scenes involving police confrontation and shakedowns that extend beyond “driving while Black,” and explore “living while Black.” Those scenes are especially poignant in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed focus on police brutality and violence towards Black people.

This exploration happens alongside the disbelief of the primary white character, Jerry Heller, of what he witnesses as the everyday experiences of these men. No scene makes this more clear than when the members of NWA step outside of the recording studio only to be confronted by multiple police officers who happen to be in the area. The officers rough them up, demand that they lie face down on the ground, and refuse to believe that they have a purpose for being near the studio other than to cause trouble and “look like gangsters.” The first officer to arrive, and the most active in the shakedown, is Black. Jerry Heller takes in the scene and vocalizes his incredulous bewilderment at what he perceives to be the violation of constitutional rights. It’s a complicated and nuanced scene that exposes the many layers of lived experiences throughout different segments of society. We see Heller confronted with his own privilege and disbelief at actions by the police, and we also see the complex nature of living in a racist society that bathes everyone in White Supremacy, including Black police officers.

Straight Outta Compton is bold, invigorating, and reminded me of all the things I do love about rap music. It also reinforces, affirms, and glorifies the systems in place that dehumanize, commodify, and erase Black women.

The portrayal and treatment of women in the film is despicable, completely glorifying the misogyny laced in some of NWAs lyrics without restraint or critique. Alongside the brutal critique of policing in the United States exists a dangerous ambivalence and disregard for Black women. The male characters in the film paraded around throngs of topless women like trophies and reflections of their status of achievement. At points, these women were literally cast aside, and at one point Ice Cube pushed a topless woman – named Felicia – out of the hotel room in retaliation for her boyfriend searching for her and interrupting the party. With a simple “Bye, Felicia”, the audience was instructed to make light of her rejection and subsequently her status as replaceable and easily discarded. To compound the visual treatment of women, only four women had reoccurring speaking roles in the film: Dr. Dre’s mother, and three women who played girlfriends of Ice Cube, Easy-E, and Dr. Dre. Other than Dre’s mother, they were all light skinned. The only Black woman of a darker complexion who spoke regularly in the film was the stereotype of a tough loving matriarch trying to keep her kids alive. She lacked depth as portrayed in the film.

Straight Outta Compton may focus on the lives of five men, but that does not give the film a pass to literally cast women aside and continuously objectify them, or completely leave out Dr. Dre’s own history of violence, in favor of stories that “better serve the narrative.” Nor is this the first time when a strong social critique of society’s treatment of Black men that completely tosses aside Black women. There is an uncomfortable thread through social movements and media portrayal that has constructed Blackness as male, consistently placing women on the margins. This is not just a Straight Outta Compton problem. It is a social, political, and pop culture problem.

The fight to see the names of Black women incorporated into the litany of chants and tweets in the #BlackLivesMatter conversations exist in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement and Black women fighting to be seen alongside the men recognized as leading the movement. Until Sandra Bland, there had not been a comparable national outcry about the death of a Black woman to that of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, despite the fact that many Black women have lost their lives.

The political sphere does not exist in a vacuum, instead functioning in tandem with popular culture to influence society. Whether it is movies, music, or comedy, elements of culture heralded as strong representations of Blackness consistently mistreat Black women.

Straight Outta Compton is the kind of movie people will talk about for years, but it is important that we don’t just discuss police brutality and social commentary. Just underneath the surface lurks the legacy of neglect and violence inflicted upon Black women that demands to be seen. Black women deserve the justice of recognition and acknowledgement. Straight Outta Compton should have done better, as should we all.

Header Image Credit: Genius


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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