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The representation of women in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton can be viewed two ways. The first, most obvious assessment is that in a film that barely passes the Bechdel test (One woman tells another in the film’s opening scene, “Nah, I’m good,” in response to a non-verbal question of whether she would like to drink Easy-E’s unwanted forty.) the multitudes of silent, mostly naked, women strewn liberally throughout the nearly three hour run time are sexualized objects, and nothing more. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this biopic features more boobs than Boogie Nights and a lot more booty. A deeper message can be observed however, when examining the protagonist’s arcs for change and its impetuous. The lives of NWA’s members are profoundly shaped by the women in them, and though at times their influence wasn’t emphasized, they are the backbone of the story; providing the support the men need to excel and even triumph.
Treated as a side character, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) is depicted as the biggest womanizer, hitting on every woman he interacts with and watching explicit porn in the tour bus’ main room as if it were completely innocuous programming. Just before an early showcase performance he jokes, “Can this motherfuckin Jerry Heller bring in more pussy? Cause that’s worth twenty percent.” The manager does just that for the guys of NWA, from which the conclusion could be drawn that DJ Yella, at least, felt his contractual arrangement with Heller (Paul Giamatti) was satisfactory.
Ice Cube, played convincingly with depth and finesse by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., is driven by his need to provide for himself and his growing family. Though in the early tour scenes he is seen entertaining groupies, even dropping the line “Bye, Felicia” on a topless, hotel-room-ejected, exotic dancer years before penning Friday, he is the first NWA member to settle down into presumed blissful monogamy. His wife Kim (Alexandra Shipp) doesn’t have a big role, but is shown time and again nodding her full support and backing up her man’s plays with her unyieldingly protective body language. The filmmakers did a wonderful job here of showing without telling in just a few scenes what a motivating force this important woman was in his life.
As portrayed cleanly by Corey Hawkins, Dr. Dre’s experiences with women in the film are a contrast to Cube’s committed one, but tell the same story. At first, both his own mother (Lisa Renee Pitts) and his daughter’s mother, Lavetta (Aeriel Miranda) are critical of his choice to pursue a career in music without any significant financial gain or control over his own path. When he discovers that the mature relationship he desires with future wife Nicole (Elena Goode) is out of reach due to his violent associates and partying lifestyle, he changes his outlook and abandons that life in favor of fiscal independence and total creative control.
Lastly, the film’s presentation of the late Easy-E, played with heart-rending tenderness by Jason Mitchell, downplays the man’s misogynistic attitudes as a product of his surroundings and the folly of youth. His disgusted demeanor while spitting “You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker,” while laying down Straight Outta Compton’s title track is one of utter sincerity even though he is usually shown with a woman close by his side. Though in real life he fathered children with several women, they are barely mentioned and the audience only meets one, the woman who became his wife, Tomika (Carra Patterson). Most tellingly, this woman radically alters the course of Easy-E’s life by presenting him with an accounting of his manager’s career long betrayal. When E confronts Heller, the man dismisses Tomika’s importance to E, calling her a groupie executive assistant, but Easy-E doesn’t take the woman-blaming-bait. Instead, he trusts the woman he loves and fires the man responsible for duping him for so long.
Watching the fictionalized account unfold, I couldn’t shake the idea that if Kim, Tomika and Nicole had just hashed out the group’s Jerry Heller problem over lunch NWA never would have split up. Only this movie isn’t about NWA’s wives, but the men themselves. So even though most of the film’s women weren’t rounded characters, at least Gray didn’t let them all become mere titillating backdrop. Some served as important personal confidants and support systems for the movie’s central characters, which highlights their importance to the group’s ever shifting dynamic. If, as their song Gangsta says, “life ain’t nothin but bitches and money,” then the men of NWA did well for themselves, finding both satisfaction with their bottom lines and love from the bottom of their hearts.