The film with the highest August opening for a R rated film wasn’t a comedy or invoking religious themes. The fifth best August opening of all time doesn’t belong to Marvel or DC. It’s a film that just opened last Friday: Straight Outta Compton. Further defying the rules, the cast was almost exclusively African-American but over half the paying audience were Caucasian, Latino, Asian and more. Why was it so special? Did it deserve it?
On the surface, Straight Outta Compton sounds like an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music where five young men form a music group, N.W.A., to better their situations. The complaint sounds even more fair when two of the members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, were subjects of their own Behind the Music shows. Less than ten years ago, VH1 even put together their own documentary about the rise and fall of N.W.A.
The difference between anything on television and Straight Outta Compton is that the film took their 29 million dollar budget and milked it for all its worth. The viewer is transported instantly back in time and easily convinced that they are witnessing these real events. The cast is perfect and made to look so similar to their real counterparts that the music lovers won’t even need introductions. The majority of the acting rests on the shoulders of O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Jason Mitchell. While a lot of publicity has centered on Jackson playing his father, Ice Cube, accurately down to every last scowl, Mitchell deserves a lot of credit as well. The mainstream audience knows Ice Cube from a variety of comedies whereas Eazy-E has been dead for twenty years. Mitchell had to endear his character to the audience through a mix of vulnerability, naivety and fear that always appears to be resting just below the charming surface, ready to bubble up at the slightest provocation and turn into violence.
The film could be criticized for how quickly the characters leave their hometown. Isn’t it important to show how these characters were formed into who they are? However, part of the tragedy is that they can never really leave Compton. Even when they’re miles and miles away, their old neighborhood still haunts them. Sometimes, it’s literally through old acquaintances but it’s usually in the form of their behavior. Compton is shown to be a place of death where young residents, like our five young men, cocoon themselves within the violence just to survive. Yet they stay within that cocoon, quick to use violence when words don’t seem to have the desired effect. It’s only when they truly break free of their cocoon of violence that the men are shown to have become truly successful. How many young men are still trapped in their cocoon? How many don’t even realize the violence that society has instilled in them?
Sadly, Straight Outta Compton downplays the real extent of N.W.A.’s violence. Domestic abuse was common among their girlfriends. While the film has verbal abuse and pushing towards women, the reality, including Dr. Dre pushing Dee Barnes down a flight of stairs, is excluded. As the film suggested, Dre is remorseful of his earlier behavior and has stated, “I made some fucking horrible mistakes in my life. I was young, fucking stupid. I would say all the allegations aren’t true – some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. It was really fucked up. But I paid for those mistakes, and there’s no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.” Another woman, Michel’le, admitted that she stayed with Dre because “Getting beat was love to me. When I got with Suge- believe it or not—he didn’t really beat me. I asked him ‘why aren’t you beating me? Don’t you love me?” This is also an interesting statement when Suge in the film is the violence of Compton personified. If he’s not threatening someone with violence, he has his hand close to a trigger.
The problem with Straight Outta Compton is that it’s elimination of some parts of reality are directly linked to its narration restrictions. It’s not a normal film with omniscient narration that hops from character to character. Instead, the viewer is getting all of the story from the perspectives of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, even if they weren’t actually there like the scenes with just Eazy-E. The screenplay did have one female writer but aside from one powerful speech from Dr. Dre’s mother, females are little more than sexy lamps that nag and get pushed around. It would have gained a richer background on the group to have the females characters as involved as their real life counterparts were. The original cut of the film was three and a half hours and did contain Dee Barnes.
This isn’t a “white saviour” film either. While the trailers all feature Paul Giamatti, Jerry Heller is portrayed as an opportunistic agent. Eazy-E’s daughter, Erin Wright, argues the film was unfair to Heller and her version of events will be part of her documentary, A Ruthless Scandal: No More Lies. The documentary has been over two years in the making and has no release date. Other male Caucasians are either threats or obstacles to the men’s financial success. Any other races basically don’t exist. Being the ’90s, homophobic comments occur occasionally. No, law enforcement doesn’t come off well either. The film fully explains the thinking behind Fuck the Police and shows footage from the video of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King repeatedly.
Still, the most important part of a film based on real events is so that the audience can watch and realize how a person’s life can be so different in some ways and so alike in other ways to our own. Straight Outta Compton does this with fantastic actors that demand your attention. It puts a familiar face to those “thugs” that some media persist in talking about and shows how much more there is to the story. The best ending would be if some of those audience members who enjoyed themselves here seek out other stories, maybe some that they wouldn’t have checked out before.
After the film, you can check out some of those forgotten female artists involved with the N.W.A. like Dee Barnes, Michel’le, Tairrie B. and JJ Fad as well as their contemporaries like Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Yo Yo, Nikki D., and Lady of Rage.
Rap was always honest. The lyrics to The Message (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five include
I can’t walk through the park cause it’s crazy after dark
Keep my hand on my gun cause they got me on the run
Gangster rap was soon to follow with Schoolly D and Ice-T. However, N.W.A made it mainstream so that even television and politicians were complaining about it. The more complaints against the songs, the more it was being heard and the right to write their songs with profanity and violence was never taken away. It’s still recognized as free speech. Their influence can still be felt today.
The end of the film addresses how Eminem and others were inspired by N.W.A. members. It’s just a small fraction of everyone touched by their music. Country music tends to complain about their situation but find a way to remain upbeat. Rap is more like blues where you can just complain and you don’t have to like it. This brutal honesty, including language, allows for songs like Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna and Drunk in Love by Beyonce and Jay-Z.
Erin Wright dropped her own single, “Girl Crush”. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. goes by the rapper handle, OMG.
Have you heard Alessia Cara? She refers to her music as “alternative pop” but it feels like a form of rap by the way her words come one after another in a steady melodic stream. Yet the weight the words carry isn’t quickly forgotten pleasantries, they’re passive aggressive anger at societal expectations versus her actual wants. It’s beautiful. Look her up.
Also, if you want to learn more about the birth of rap and Hip Hop, Ed Piskor has a fabulous series, the Hip Hop Family Tree.
Next week will catch up on the extensive list of future Dwayne Johnson projects and more!