It seems like a dangerous ask to make a movie with underlying themes such as Straight Outta Compton: a flick that is based on circumstances of 20 years, yet ones that resonate just as powerfully today. You can’t remove the circumstance from the narrative, and as a viewer you can’t distance yourself from the portrayed tension between the police and the young black male. But does a movie so grounded in culture and social norms that surround it (it’s a large part of who N.W.A. were) have an inherent responsibility to not simply brush over an issue, but also to discuss it openly with a viewer?
There is a moment in the movie that resonates, that ties it all together. In a discussion about the impact of gangster rap and its place in culture, one of the characters says that N.W.A. is bringing their reality to people who would never dare venture into Compton. That line holds as true now as much as it did then: hip-hop music has always been safe gateway for the middle-class white male into the otherwise inaccessible reality of “the hood.” You could go somewhere you would never actually go.
Such transformative power carries a lot of responsibility: you have the weight of a group of people on your shoulders; you have the pressure of portraying reality with as much gravitas as you can muster. Moreover, this is a responsibility often misused in lieu of glamorizing certain life choices. Yes, in many ways N.W.A. spoke about violence, sex and drugs but the power came from the anger, frustration and most notably the sheer hopelessness of their situation. It was the only way to tell a story as powerful as theirs.
Does the movie carry that same weight, does it bare the responsibility of telling a complex story shaped by its cultural circumstance or does it buckle under pressure? In a sense, it does both.
Straight Outta Compton starts out with strength and promise of a film that will go beyond simply paying homage to the artists it portrays. It pulls that feat off with great aplomb, in large part due to phenomenal casting and performances that squeeze every little bit out of the script. There are times you have to force yourself to do a double take just to make sure these are actors and not actual artists. These young men carry the weight and the cultural impact of the real people they portray on their shoulders, and yet they bear it well. They make you believe.
The acting is what sells the movie. We see human sides of each single one of these males, Eazy-E in particular, because he is allowed to not only be brash, angry and cocky, he is also allowed to be vulnerable, afraid and troubled. He goes on the full spectrum you would expect, and the movie misses something from not sending Dre and Cube in the same direction (perhaps the weight of producing forbids them from portraying such vulnerability). It is through Eazy’s eyes that we are allowed to see the journey of a black male from nothing to something. Jason Mitchell portrays all of it with an effortless swagger the real Eazy was known for. Both the highs and the lows have equal place in his story.
It all starts in Compton and takes you through the troubled journey of these young men. From dealing with poverty, inner city crime to being trapped in the system that has more interest in oppressing you than helping you get out. You can feel the hopelessness and the energy that will lead to the defining record from which the movie gets its name. There is certain inevitability to it, and even though you know it’s coming, it doesn’t feel any less powerful when it does get there. You can feel the anger and the frustration pour out as the lyrics boom and all of these emotions are set free.
Nowhere is this more evident than in one scene in particular. Out of Compton, recording in a studio there is another encounter with the police. It feels like a clash of worlds, the sheer raw power of it: The heroes slammed to the ground, by an African American police officer, and there is nothing they can do. To them, this is another day, yet to their then producer, Jerry Heller, it’s a moment of surprise and Paul Giamatti does extremely well to portray that genuine disbelief. He gets a glimpse into the lives of these men, into their daily lives, much like the audience does at that moment. The exchange goes on to discredit both the main characters’ race and culture before ending with an almost defeated “please don’t bother us anymore,” from Giamatti’s Heller.
All through that scene you know what it leads to, you can just tell what lyrics this meticulous build up is driving towards. When they finally come, it’s a cathartic experience for both the viewer and the characters. All of that emotion that has been so carefully layered through the first 30 minutes finally spills out and drives the next act forward. Just as we have seen a glimpse into the reality of Compton, so do millions of American’s now on screen. Yet Straight Outta Compton doesn’t seem to have the desire to push forward from here.
On one hand, you get it. This is a movie speaking about a group of artists, trying to portray their life story. On the other, the ascent of N.W.A. is directly tied to the cultural circumstances of their time. You cannot separate one from the other. Each one of these men, their fate and their path, is tied in many ways to where they’re from and what they’ve been through. By the time we get to the Rodney King trial and the riots, it feels shallow, like we’re just passing through, not ready to stop. No one has a real conversation about it. No one sheds more light on it. We just move on. I can’t imagine that these men, so shaped by the social imbalance of the time would simply brush through this deeply resonant moment unscathed. I cannot believe that the power behind the voice of “F*ck The Police” didn’t touch every single one of them after the Rodney King verdict.
Yet, sadly, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t go there. The third act of the movie turns into a “Greatest Hits” collection that circles the point that it was making in the first two acts, but never actually goes back to it. We see flashes of police mistreatment, the riots, the violence yet it never sticks around to affect the viewer or the characters. Instead, we spend inconsequential time with Suge Knight, Tupac and Snoop cameos that serve very little purpose other than to say “hey, remember this song? This is where it’s from, this is how it came together.” While a great cultural memento for a music fan like myself, it holds little to no weight in comparison to the point that the movie could have made.
In the end Straight Outta Compton walks the line in between unabashedly paying homage to its core subjects and trying to make a cultural point that is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. It eventually settles for the latter. You can’t judge those involved for this turn because in the end this is a movie about five young men making it to the top of the hip-hop world.
And even here, it doesn’t quite reach it’s supposed pinnacle. No member outside of Eazy-E is allowed to be flawed or vulnerable in any real way. Yes, we see glimpses of Dre and Cube’s flaws, but we never have them come out fully, we never reveal them. They scathe by and remain nearly flawless through two and a half hours. Eazy seems the most human. He is allowed to make mistakes. He is allowed to crash and burn. He is allowed to be him. Despite all of the well known troubles Dre and Cube have had, none of those make light into the film. Yes, you can argue that Dre’s tendencies towards violence would have done very little to enhance the particular narrative the script weaves, but so did the scenes with Suge Knight or even the tidbits of how “Nothing But a G Thang” was born. At least Dre’s part is tied directly to who these men are, everything else is just window dressing.
When the final word is said and done, when you see the actual footage and interviews with the real N.W.A., when you hear Kendrick Lamar wax poetic about the inspiration these men gave to him as a young black male “trapped” in Compton, you can’t help but feel that this story is incomplete. You can’t help but feel that it removed itself from the statement it has worked so meticulously to set up in the first act. I can only hope that this feeling is enough to get us thinking about it in ways that these men did 20 years ago when it all started.