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The Case for Straight Outta Compton

When Straight Outta Compton dropped, earned good reviews and made a ton of money, its success was chased by valid rumblings that the film failed to address the abuse of women at the hands of Dr. Dre. At first it seemed as though that negative angle would undercut its substantial positive aspects and that perhaps the film’s success or failure would be defined by this oversight. It would be easy to dismiss this issue as an agenda latched onto by activists who expect our art to somehow rectify the wrongs of modern day culture and to fix our checkered history, too.  So many eruptions like this seem to do little more than burden films with unfair baggage.

But F. Gary Gray’s most excellent, vibrant celebration of the rise and revolution of hip hop music has a right to tell an uplifting story that exists above and beyond the bad behavior of any individual participants.  How many beloved films have shown us legendary facets of white history and avoided the unseemly details?  Hell, decades of westerns and frontier heroes gloss over far worse atrocities, not to mention Gone with the Wind. To confront the abuse and mistreatment of women in the music industry and the overall celebrity culture of the era is an important subject worthy of a whole movie unto itself — and I hope someone makes that movie. This story, however, is about something different. It’s about how raw talent, drive and ambition triumphed over oppression, poverty, racism and burgeoning police brutality.
Straight Outta Compton follows the trajectory of several notable figures that helped launch the hip hop music revolution from from 1986 and through the 1990s, specifically NWA (“Niggaz Wit Attitudes”) with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Arabian Prince, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know everything about hip hop. I listened to NWA back in the day but I was by no means well-versed in the ways of the music or the movement. This is what I most love about Gray’s film — it is a valuable piece of American history that illuminates a world I knew nothing about, examines grim commonplace struggles that I had little idea existed — serious concerns and seething hostilities occurring every day that most people I knew never faced, blithely unaware of what was happening a few miles across town. It’s all over the news now, day in and day out, with high profile egregious brutality and outright murders of young black men captured on video nationwide, launching the full impassioned force of the Black Lives Matter movement. But back in the 1980s and 1990s white culture didn’t really find out about this sickness until the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the subsequent uprising a year later when the cops walked away scot-free.

If Straight Outta Compton was only about the story of street kids who turned their lives around it wouldn’t be one of the best films of the year. Yes, it’s about the music, the drugs, the sex, the parties – but far more importantly, it’s about the message in the music, the rousing power of the lyrics, and how talent can be the salvation in a world that offers up nothing but closed doors.

The music — even for a know-nothing like me — is so unbelievably good that it pounds hard and fast past conventional attachments; we have no choice but to surrender to that insistent beat. Yes, even with all the brute shouts about “bitches and hos” riddled throughout. Who can forget how Do the Right Thing opened? Gray captures the spirit of the music, the anger in the lyrics in magnificently recreated concert footage,  focusing tightly on the inspirations the music drew from and vividly reminding us how far ahead of their time NWA really was.

Growing up in white LA, my friends and I mostly stayed outta Compton. How strange to live such separate, segregated lives in a supposedly progressive city. The music eventually spread and took over and changed America’s music landscape, as innovative black artists have done throughout our cultural history. How many cultural appropriations have there been? I’ve lost count by now — white culture is notorious for taking something black artists invented and then raking in the profits by repackaging and selling it to white audiences. It’s time to really give credit where credit is due for the birth of hip hop in American culture and no film has ever done it better than Straight Outta Compton.

The reason the Academy should consider Straight Outta Compton for Best Picture is because it’s an important story about our collective history and rips into the ongoing national narrative of racial conflict that continues to divide us — latent conflict that far too often culminates in its most tragic iteration when hundreds of innocent people are arrested, beaten, and killed for no crime other than their blackness.  Straight Outta Compton is a story about our country on the brink, a story about our horrifying here-and-now, as essential to understanding where we are and how we got here as The Big Short, as brutally blunt as Beasts of No Nation. These conflicts continue to pulse through our culture every day and yet are often ignored by the establishment that decides what defines the portrait of our lives being portrayed by the year in film.

Straight Outta Compton is one of the most successful films of the year, with a box office take of $161 million on a scant budget of $28 mil; it’s tp. David Edelstein of New York Magazine wrote about this film in his review:

The story of pioneering L.A. gangsta rappers N.W.A. (as dictated and co-produced by the now-bazillionaire N.W.A.’ers themselves), Straight Outta Compton is among the most potent rags-to-riches showbiz movies ever made. It’s not the music itself that puts the film over, although hard-core bangers like “Fuck tha Police” still trigger both your exultation and fight-or-flight response. It’s the density of detail — along with jagged, hand-held camerawork that evokes a war zone — that renders the trauma universal. It’s how the movie makes you see the world through the eyes of Andre Young (a.k.a. Dr. Dre), O’Shea Jackson (a.k.a. Ice Cube), and Eazy-E (Eric Wright); and so the meaning, the urgency, at times the necessity of even the most obscene, vainglorious, and incendiary rhymes emerge with thrilling clarity.

I know, millions of people didn’t need a biopic to understand that urgency — or need, for that matter, my white-mansplainin’ of the roots of gangsta rap. But Straight Outta Compton aims to cross cultures and sanctify the wisdom of the street — to make a universal underdog story. It succeeds on a visceral level. Directed by F. Gary Gray from a shapely, often subtle script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the film depicts a world that’s a series of confrontations, one swiftly following the next. The cops manhandle and go nose-to-nose with young black men, their attacks a test of manhood to be met with casual defiance, with heads held high. But damage is also done by other black men, who put their own pride on the line in dances of dominance and submission.

Please tell me this isn’t going to be another year when Oscar voters once again declare white history as the only history worth rewarding. For all of the diversity in films like The Martian, Beasts of No Nation, The Force Awakens, Creed and The Big Short — we could still risk ending up with yet another shameful season where most of the films honored feature mostly white casts. How can we say “black lives matter” and then turn around and repeatedly prove that they really don’t?

For a major studio to have released Straight Outta Compton, and given it the wide reach it needed to earn $161 million is a huge statement. It’s a success story that no self-respecting industry can ignore if they honestly intend to honor the highest achievements of the year. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be denied, to give credit where credit is due. The vivid images of South Central Los Angeles, the great performances — by O’Shae Jackson as Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as Eazy E in particular — and the film’s beating heart: those great great songs. To honor this film will celebrate the hip hop legacy, pay tribute to one of the most fascinating cultural shifts of our time, and acknowledge how its throbbing pulse continues to resonate today.