A Meme Gets An Uncomfortable Backstory In 'Straight Outta Compton'

Aug 18, 2015
Originally published on August 19, 2015 9:47 am

Straight Outta Compton, the provocative biopic on the late-'80s hip-hop group N.W.A, reportedly brought in more than $60 million last weekend. Among other things, it pays homage to a cultural reference made famous by its member Ice Cube in the 1995 film Friday -- one that later became shorthand to dismiss trolls on Twitter with the hashtag #ByeFelicia.

But writer Allison Davis didn't find the joke in Straight Outta Compton funny.

"Of course, the movie was going to acknowledge it as a little wink and a nod," Davis tells NPR. "But the scene they wrote as a wink and a nod — and as a punchline, in my opinion — was just kind of disturbing. There's a party scene, and there's a lot of sexual activity going on, and women are naked and lying around in thongs everywhere. The woman in question was in the middle of a sexual act and they blamed her — the 'harlot troublemaker' — and, as punishment, kicked her out without her clothes, slammed the door and said, 'Bye, Felicia.' "

Davis joined NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss her essay on The Cut and why Straight Outta Compton raises questions that are tough for black women to grapple with.

Explain what it is that bothers you. It's a woman being treated brutally, blamed for an argument among men.

Yeah, exactly. It's slut-shaming, in a way. I think for a movie that omitted discussing and contextualizing a history of degradation of women, a brutality of women — to ignore that conversation and then to add a misogynistic moment for a punchline just felt really bad and really insensitive and thoughtless. I think it's demonstrative of how society treats black women in general. You'll ignore the brutality, and then you'll ignore discussions of empowerment — we're throwaways.

You did something that lots of people do: Something bothered you and you wrote about it on the Internet. But you did something else that I really appreciate: You reached out to the director, Gary Gray, and said, "What's up with this?" How'd that conversation go?

I think it struck a nerve, as conversations about misogyny often do. [Laughs.]

What did he say?

Essentially, that he's telling the story of N.W.A, and that in order to entertain, you can't always be politically correct. And that there are other things to focus on besides just that — I'm assuming because the movie addresses police brutality and N.W.A's role in getting black people a voice in Compton in the '80s against the police, and giving them an anthem. But to say, "Let's focus on one gender's plight and one social-justice issue and ignore the other one" was kind of also disappointing.

Gary Gray has one other defense that you report: "C'mon, Oprah liked this movie." Why do you think she liked it?

You know, I think Oprah supports the movie because, as a positive, the movie does tell an important story about a group that was an important mouthpiece for black people and for black culture. But within that legacy, there is a history of language that degrades women and therefore, I think, becomes very complicated for black women to support this film — and, often, hip-hop culture in general.

For example, another woman who supports the film publicly is the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, who's been tweeting out wide support for the movie. She had a tweet that said, "It's complicated because loving hip-hop means loving the abuser."

What does that mean?

That you love hip-hop because it's a product of your culture, and it's done so much, in so many ways, to give voice to your culture and your community. But you can't ignore, especially in this movie, how the culture degrades women. You can't ignore the rampant misogyny and the brutality that's also part of the culture.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a dissenting view now of the movie "Straight Outta Compton." Critics love it, and it was a box office hit when it opened last weekend. It's been advertised on top of taxicabs here in New York City and supported on Twitter by the likes of Oprah. The movie tracks the rise of the influential rap group NWA. The founders, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, grew famous confronting issues like police brutality. That could hardly seem more current. And Allison Davis says she was excited to attend the movie inspired by their story. But the treatment of women in this movie bothers her, and she wrote about that in New York Magazine. She was especially troubled by a scene that referenced a famous Ice Cube catchphrase, bye, Felicia.

ALLISON DAVIS: Bye, Felicia - it's kind of taken on a life of its own, but it's a line that originated from Ice Cube's movie "Friday" in 1995.

INSKEEP: Millions of people have seen this scene where he tells a woman to get lost.

DAVIS: Exactly, by saying, bye, Felicia. So now it's become this hashtag campaign in which you want to dismiss somebody, you just shut the conversation down by saying, bye, Felicia. And it's really popular online, and I - of course, the movie was going to acknowledge it as a little wink and a nod. But the scene they wrote, in my opinion, was just kind of disturbing and - because there's a party scene, and there's a lot of sexual activity going on, and women are naked and lying around in thongs everywhere. And the woman in question was in the middle of a sexual act. Because she was cheating on her boyfriend, the boyfriend started a fight. They blamed her and, as punishment, kicked her out without her clothes and slammed the door and said, bye, Felicia.

INSKEEP: Bye, Felicia.

DAVIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Ha-ha-ha, everyone laughed.

DAVIS: Everyone...

INSKEEP: Did everyone laugh?

DAVIS: Everyone laughed, yeah, I mean, because it's such a cultural touchstone. I guess they enjoyed having it, but it wasn't funny to me.

INSKEEP: Explain what it is that bothers you. It's that it's a woman being treated brutally...

DAVIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...And blamed for an argument among men.

DAVIS: Exactly. I mean, it's slut shaming in a way. And I think for a movie that omitted discussing and contextualizing a kind of history of degradation of women and brutality of women - to ignore that conversation but then to add in a misogynistic moment for a punch line just felt really insensitive and thoughtless. And I think that it's kind of demonstrative of how society treats black women in general, that, you know, you'll ignore the brutality, and then you'll ignore discussions of empowerment or throwaways.

INSKEEP: So you did something that lots of people do. Something bothered you, and you wrote about it on the Internet. But you did something else that I really appreciate. You reached out to the director...

DAVIS: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...F. Gary Gray and said, what's up with this? How'd that conversation go?

DAVIS: I think it struck a nerve. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: What did he say?

DAVIS: Essentially that he's telling the story of NWA and that in order to entertain, you can't always be politically correct and also that there are other things to focus on besides just that. You know, I'm assuming because the movie addresses police brutality and NWA's role in giving black people a voice in Compton in the '80s against police brutality and giving them an anthem, but to say, like, let's focus on one social justice issue and ignore the other one was kind of also disappointing.

INSKEEP: F. Gary Gray has one other defense that you report. He says, come on, Oprah liked this movie.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: The Oprah defense.

DAVIS: (Laughter) I know.

INSKEEP: Although it's a pretty good defense...

DAVIS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...I mean, how do you - why do you think she liked it?

DAVIS: You know, I think Oprah supports the movie because as a positive, the movie does tell an important story about a group that was an important mouthpiece for black people and for black culture. But within that legacy, there is, you know, a history of language that degrades women and therefore, I think, becomes very complicated for black women to support this film and often hip-hop culture in general. For example, another woman who supports the film publicly is the director of "Selma," Ava DuVernay, who's been tweeting out wide support for the movie. And she had a tweet that said, it's complicated because loving hip-hop is - means loving the abuser.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

DAVIS: That you love hip-hop because it's a product of your culture, and it's done so much to give voice to your culture. But you can't ignore, especially in this movie, how the culture degrades women, and you can't ignore the rampant misogyny and the brutality that it's also a part of - of the culture.

INSKEEP: Allison Davis of the Cut, a New York Magazine, thanks very much.

DAVIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.