[Does not contain spoilers (but who doesn’t know this story?)]
So I went to check out Straight Outta Compton Friday night with a few friends, one of which used to live in Compton during the period the movie depicts – of course he was on 100! It was fascinating seeing him view the film having such a personal attachment to not only N.W.A. but the city of Compton, and all that meant as far as police brutality of young black males during the late 1980’s. I, however, wanted to approach the movie in an objective way, with an open mind, so that I could answer two primary questions:
1.) Is Straight Outta Compton a quality film based on the standards by which every other movie is judged? – direction, stand-out acting performances, casting, setting, script, dramatical effect, score, soundtrack, etc…
2.) What is the cultural impact and societal implications of this film in 2015 and does it inform us in any way as to how much or little America has progressed since 1988 – the year N.W.A. was introduced to the world.
Honestly, the film wasn’t corny, quite an achievement for a pop culture movie (see Notorious), so I was satisfied on that account. The casting decisions were pretty much solid, but there were a few exceptions. The two actors they chose to portray Snoop Doggy Dog and Tupac Shakur were suspect – “Snoop” didn’t look like Snoop and his acting was cringeworthy, and “2pac,” despite resembling the late rapper, didn’t embody him during his short time on screen – it came off forced.
On the other side of the spectrum, O’Shea Jackson Jr., was the perfect casting decision to play the role of his father Ice Cube. Jackson Jr’s performance deserves praise, his acting chops are legit, at least for a film like this (I’ll be interested to see if more roles come his way after this success.)Not only is he the spitting image of his father, (no surprise) but his voice and mannerisms were spot-on. In many ways his performance was the glue that held the movie together. The other actors played off of him well and that made it all believable.
F. Gary Gray did a more than serviceable job in the director’s chair. Gray was assigned the difficult task of taking a handful of inexperienced actors and convincing the audience that they cared about one another so that we could care about them. He had to give them depth. Gray largely achieved this by juxtaposing the main characters, as often as possible without risking redundancy, against the backdrop of police violence. This relieved the actors from having to build the drama themselves through their performances alone. The opening of the movie grabs the viewer by the throat a bit and allows us to exhale believing the ride we’re about to take for the next two hours or so won’t be underwhelming.
As far as the script, at the center of it is comedy. And if there’s one thing F. Gary Gray can direct is a comedy (Friday anyone?). There’s numerous laugh-out-loud moments in Straight Outta Compton. A nice touch for a movie billed as a drama, and notable also for the irony of a film depicting hip-hop music during the late 1980’s/early 90’s, when verbal jabs garnered mostly laughs rather than bullets and caskets.
The movie takes viewers down memory lane with the soundtrack of course. Songs by N.W.A., Ice Cube, Public Enemy, Snoop Dogg, 2pac, etc., offer the nostalgic quality a film like this certainly needs to provide, it doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
There won’t be any Oscars handed out for this film, but it is a highly-watchable piece of entertainment, which if one suspends their disbelief long enough about the very real threat of police – inflicted violence on people of color, it serves as an escape from reality for a couple hours.
But I’m not one who believes in suspending disbelief.
If entertainment news reports are accurate, as of this morning, Straight Outta Compton is set to rake in almost $60 million dollars from weekend sales. This film has obviously struck a cultural nerve, movie goers across the racial spectrum are supporting it in droves.
Is it simply that millennials are using this film to relive there childhoods? Maybe. But what can’t be dismissed nor lost in all the nostalgia is the inescapable reality that N.W.A. is largely responsible for ushering into hip-hop music and the larger culture both images of hyper-aggressive, hyper-sexualized, misogynistic, young black males and the commercialization of black gangsterism, gun violence, and dope selling. Of which hip-hop music and youth culture has never recovered.
The commercial success of N.W.A. was achieved on the heels of the hip-hop led “Stop the Violence” movement to combat black-on-black crime, police brutality, and containment of black citizens in inner cities across America – places like Compton for instance. Hip-hop artists such as Chuck D and Flava Flav of Public Enemy, KRS-1, MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee, Just-Ice, Ms. Melodie, and others stood in solidarity to confront an issue that we’re still grappling with today.
N.W.A.’s success undercut this movement and relegated its impact to a footnote rather than what could have potentially been a black youth-led revolution to transform not only crime-infested, poor communities, but the system of white supremacy which created them. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but it’s difficult not to at least entertain the idea that white corporate interests chose to co-opt hip-hop music at this crucial moment of its infancy in order to dispel any legitimate hopes for black empowerment, economic uplift, and most importantly, coalition building among young white teenagers, who gravitated toward the music, and the black children of the Civil Rights Movement. To ignore these key factors in the story of N.W.A.’s rise to fame is a mistake.
The glorification of gangsterism in hip-hop music since N.W.A.’s debut has at least in some way contributed to gun violence in poor communities during the 1990’s into the new millennium. This preoccupation with thuggery was directly responsible for the deaths of two of hip-hop’s greatest story tellers, and potentially the two greatest influencers of young black males for good, if they’d chosen a less destructive path: The late Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.
So after viewing a movie like Straight Outta Compton I’m left with more questions than answers, left with laughter without joy. I’m left to wonder what might’ve been for my community if the seduction of large paychecks hadn’t trumped black lives that mattered.