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Straight Outta Compton

August 14, 2015
Straight Outta Compton

Okay, customary disclaimer up front, I am not the man with the complexion to really weigh in on the ins and outs of the racial and representational politics of Straight Outta Compton. Seriously, mine should be at best one of many takes you read. Try Odienator’s over at RogerEbert.com.

I mean, I wasn’t even really paying attention to this when it was going down. The most significant memory I have was thinking 2 Live Crew’s stuff was in poor taste, but bringing obscenity charges was an incredible waste of time better spent on actual crimes. So I’m also not really in a position to judge how accurate or inaccurate the history is.

I will say this much: the movie is produced by central N.W.A. members Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), along with Tomica Woods-Wright (Carra Patterson), the widow of front man Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). And, as it happens, we get a whole lot of sympathetic material about those three. DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are mostly neutral supporting roles, while Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) and Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) get pretty well savaged by the end. I don’t mean to say that the producers set out to burnish their reputations and issue a diss flick to their old enemies, but bias is a damned hard thing to get past. We all have a tendency to see ourselves as the star of our own movies, and these three have the power to make that literal.

But okay, as I said we all have biases so it’s not like doctoring the spin on these records a tad is going to ruin the movie. In fact, it’s got something to say. It just peters out after saying it halfway.

Probably the biggest complaint about N.W.A. wasn’t the “obscenity” of their lyrics, but their violence and anger, especially towards the established authorities. And, looking back from our current vantage point, why wouldn’t they? The LAPD was running a unit called “CRASH” — Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums — as a de facto occupying army in Black jurisdictions like Compton.

And when I say “occupying army” I mean it literally. We get introduced to E when the house he’s in gets served with a no-knock warrant. By a tank. Which demolishes the front of the house. High schooler Cube gets thrown against a car, handcuffed, and frisked while trying to walk across the street from a friend’s house to his own. And the whole group is put on the ground and nearly arrested just for standing together outside their recording studio in Torrence. If this were your life, wouldn’t you have some choice words for the police yourself?

Or don’t you now, when the same thing is still going on? The rest of America is only just now coming around to understand how universal this experience is for their Black fellow citizens, and has been for decades. And when the Rodney King beating and trial come up in the movie, there’s a dark irony as someone says “at least they got it on camera”. A quarter-century later the cameras are everywhere, and white people are still just beginning to push the needle on understanding the pain and rage at the injustice that led to the riots in 1992. I don’t know whether director F. Gary Gray inserted the shot of a Crip and a Blood with their bandannas tied together in solidarity was inserted before or after the truce was called this April in Baltimore, but it’s a powerful image either way.

And honestly, how are people supposed to read increased security at screenings this weekend as anything other than an echo of the 1989 N.W.A. concert in Detroit? All of the dangerous incidents at theaters that have hit the news are about lone white guys carrying guns, but we’re supposed to be worried about a crowd of scary black folk getting riled up and running rampant over this movie? Did the studio executives at Universal who called for the increased security watch their own damn film?

Straight Outta Compton does a great job of making the atmosphere around the rise of N.W.A. and gangsta rap — or “reality rap”, as they were calling it at the time — resonate with today’s events. But if you know your release date is coming within a week of the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson protests, why wouldn’t you cut it in order to make that theme the focal point of the entire film?

Pretty much right after the Detroit concert and the immediate fallout, we move on to the cracks that form within the group. Cube had been suspicious of manager Jerry Heller’s fast-talking for a while, and leaves first, followed later by Dre leaving to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight. There’s a sense that once the group’s wealth and fame bought them some insulation from the worst abuses of authority, they lacked the common enemy that bound them together, and they began to fall apart. The angry, violent tendencies hadn’t gone away, so they turned on each other.

The thing is, the movie doesn’t really seem interested in tying back into that theme during the second half. It becomes a series of episodes: this happened, then this, then this, then this. And while it’s somewhat interesting to hear a — necessarily biased — version of these events, it lacks the narrative power that carried the first half along.

And the style gets sloppy and garish along with the story. I’ve heard that the script shaves off the rough edges of N.W.A.’s treatment of women, but if that’s true I’d hate to see the unedited version. With the exception of Woods, Cube’s wife Kimberly Woodruff (Alexandra Shipp), and a handful of faithless relatives, all the women we see are purely decorative. Gray shoots much of the film to resemble what white pearl-clutchers were horrified at in old rap videos, wallpapered with bouncing, half-naked female bodies. Racial attitudes aren’t the only things that don’t seem to have changed much since the ’80s.

Still, that first half goes a long way towards making up for the second half’s shortfalls. Straight Outta Compton may be flawed and even ugly at points, but it is, without question, the authentic voice of the people who made it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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