Author Sikivu Hutchinson discusses the new film Straight Outta Compton
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome everyone back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. The new film from Comcast Universal Pictures, Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of the legendary rap group NWA, has hit big since being released last week. Its opening weekend saw more than $60 million in revenues, and the film is said to have achieved the fifth-largest August opening of all time. It has been praised for its honesty in casting and performances, specifically those of O’Shea Jackson Jr. who plays his father Ice Cube, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. But for some the film represents persistent problems in the ways black communities and history are depicted. The incessant focus on black pathology, and the erasure of the very real history of NWA being part of a commercial backlash against more progressive and radical elements within hip-hop. Our next guest suggests further that NWA’s role in creating a rape culture within hip-hop and brutalized bodies of black women will be lost in the predictable stampede of media accolades. Sikivu Hutchinson is an American feminist, atheist, and author. She is the author of several books on race, gender, and atheism, most recently Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels. She can be found online at SikivuHutchinson.com, and joins us now from California. Welcome, Sikivu Hutchinson, to the Real News Network. SIKIVU HUTCHINSON, AUTHOR: Thanks. Good to be here. BALL: First, if you would just start off by telling us, quickly summarize what you mean by rape culture. And then how does NWA historically fit into this phenomenon? HUTCHINSON: When I was writing about rape culture in this specific piece I was talking about how African-American women have been specifically targeted historically as bodies to be commodified, objectified, and hypersexualized. We know that African-American women have some of the most egregious rates of sexual assault, of sex trafficking, and of intimate partner violence. And this is really rooted within a culture that says that black women’s bodies are disposable, are expendable, and are the least desirable when we’re talking about hegemonies of femininity. So rape culture is not some new phenomenon that was invented by second or third-wave white feminists. It stretches all the way back to the enslavement of black women’s bodies. And I think that NWA in persistently evoking these images of black women as chattel, as black women as disposable prostitutes who can be terroristically controlled and violated vis a vis gang rape, these images of very young black women being exploited in South Los Angeles communities, really helped to institutionalize the normalization of extreme terroristic violence against black women vis a vis rap and hip-hop culture. And made that climate acceptable, mainstream, and highly profitable, as we can see, that this is a multi-million dollar if not multi-billion dollar industry, as I say in the piece, that has almost literally been built and capitalized on the bodies and the backs of black women. BALL: Even down to what I was turned on to today, the casting call that went out for this film specifically linked beauty to light-skinned women, and equated ugliness with dark skin and heavyset features. This was specifically put into the casting call for women looking to portray roles and characters in the film, again, explicitly calling for light-skinned beautiful women, and a second category, a separate categorization, for dark-skinned, heavyset women, further perpetuating these longstanding stereotypes about beauty, particularly as it relates in this case to black women. But you were also–one of the things I did want to ask you about is that I saw the film last night, and was amazed or impressed, rather, at the quality of the film. That I think it’s, as I mentioned in the intro, that it is well acted. I think it’s well scripted, I think the casting was really well done. The characters are well portrayed. And the movie did a great job in reminding me of when I was a young man and NWA first came out, and how much I loved the group. And it also reminded me of some of the lyrics and the content, the misogynistic content in particular, that you talk about in your piece. Do you think that–or is there a response that you would have to anything that I’ve just said, in particular to the quality of the film having a greater negative impact because it’s so good, or so well done? HUTCHINSON: I think that that’s part and parcel of how rap and hip-hop have been mainstreamed into the dominant culture as this very simplistic commodification of pathologized black space. That the trajectory of contemporary hip-hop and rap has really been predicated upon the domestic and global consumption of hip-hop and rap as this authentic space of African-American cultural production that white suburban youth can plug into, can travel to in this exoticization. And that is part and parcel of the way that this film has been marketed. Some of the early reviews that I saw about the film, particularly here on the West Coast in Southern California, were rhapsodic about how this film is going to redeem South Los Angeles in general, and Compton in particular, that it’s part of the renaissance that’s happening in this predominantly African-American, Latino working class community, and that it is really an exemplar of the possibilities of the American dream, neoliberalistically framed. That underclass, disenfranchised people of color, specifically African-American men, can plug into and access. BALL: No, absolutely. One of the things that you bring out in your piece is that Dr. Dre is seen as a central and heroic figure, I believe as you describe him, in part due to what you just said. That he is seen as becoming triumphant and becoming, and shown at the end of the film as having become an enormous mogul signing his deal with Apple for his headphones. But you talk about one particular incident that was big at the time, for those of us who remember, that is not mentioned at all in the film. But his incident with Dee Barnes, could you quickly summarize your point there, as this is being emblematic of the problems you see with this film? HUTCHINSON: Yes, this was an atrocious example of the ways in which black women are controlled, exploited and commodified within that particular regime of black cultural production. Dee Barnes was a young African-American woman who was a host of an extremely influential, quasi-DIY grassroots hip-hop and rap show called Pump It Up. And a lot of young African-American folk in Southern California were very supportive of that show, because it was forerunning and really capturing the energy and the independence of the hip-hop rap movement. And so she was brutalized by Dr. Dre during a Hollywood release party. Not just once, but twice. And this was done in front of an audience. And it was co-signed by MC Ren and Eazy-E in a number of different reports, where they were more or less applauding Dee Barnes’s brutalization by their colleague. BALL: [There] being part of a backlash against the progressive elements in hip-hop at the time being used in that way as well. But thank you very much, Sikivu Hutchinson, for joining us and helping us flesh out some of this, pun intended, conversation around NWA and Straight Outta Compton. Thank you very much for joining us. HUTCHINSON: Thank you. Appreciate it. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And as always, for all involved I’m Jared Ball thanking you here in Baltimore. And as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.