Published on September 7th, 2015 | by Barbara Fine0
Straight Outta Compton
First of all, it’s been a while since I had tuned in seriously to anything the NWA boys had done. Sure I have vague memories of the era, I was more of a hard rock gal myself, and of course deemed anything that didn’t fit my narrow elitist white privileged rebellion as somehow inauthentic. Foolish, foolish me.
So, although flawed (and when it is flawed, it is deeply flawed), this film certainly has some credence and power. When you look at Ferguson, or Charleston. To the deaths of Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, there is nothing about the social circumstances of this film in a political or social sense that has really changed, shamefully.
So let’s deal with the weaknesses—there is a definite Lifetime Movie of the Week quality at times. The endless disputes, who fell out with whom, and the snippet of songs that define this at times it becomes wearing. It also is incredibly reductive. These are five young men who came to success by refusing to dial down their anger, so to see the success-equals-contention motif is a bit tired.
It’s not meant to incite riots; it is more a valve of rhetorical resistance.
But that is not the whole film. Before I watched this, I reminded myself of NWA’s ouvre. And so much remains relevant. The language is no longer shocking, the Fuck Tha Police anthem so widely vilified at the time merely acts as a reminder as to how powerless African-American young men did, and still do, feel when legislation essentially allows for them to be stopped and searched on suspicion of nothing more valid than the colour of their skin. It no longer shocks, it merely validates and provides a safety valve for what many feel, that police with endless power, weapons, and little viability to justify their killing of young black men is unquestionably wrong.
The film addresses the formation of Fuck Tha Police rather clumsily, the men emerge from the recording studio to be stopped and humiliated by the police force, who use both racial and demeaning epithets to get their point across.
Regardless of how clumsy the execution, there is an earlier scene set in Compton that underpins this. These men were all harassed. Ice Cubes’ doppelganger son has spoken of how he is still harassed. The motives for writing the song remain true and valid. It’s not meant to incite riots; it is more a valve of rhetorical resistance. Certainly what shocked at the time now just sounds full of righteous indignation.
There are characters in the film that come across as heinous: Manager Jerry Heller does come across as exploitive. His role in getting the band to a space where they at least can be listened to is acknowledged, but so is his corruption. Suge Knight is, I believe rightly, portrayed as a violent opportunistic thug. I don’t believe that he operated without the complicit permission of Dr. Dre, or any of the players. Usefully, he is currently awaiting trial for the only one of his many crimes that evidence can be provided for.
The true heart and strength of the film is in its portrayal of Eazy-E.
Yet the violence and corruption that underpin the band’s success are somewhat critiqued, although Ice Cube and Dr. Dre paint an especially revisionist portrait of themselves here. Cube as the reluctant hard-man, whose poetry released his anger and allowed him to uphold his principles, Dre as the producer who only ever cared about the music that would save him from the bleak realty of an uneducated young man growing up in Compton.
As both are executive producers, it would be naïve to believe these portrayals, but there is an attempt to include the less palatable parts. I don’t think it is utterly convincing, but that could be my jaded palate.
The true heart and strength of the film is in its portrayal of Eazy-E. Upfront and centre, he is depicted as a charming rogue, and when re-listening to the albums (although Ice Cube is the most strident voice there) is a charm to Eazy-E’s vocals that makes him endlessly listenable and fascinating. Yes, he is swearing and angry, but his voice has purity and a curious sweetness in quality and tone that makes it compelling.
Thus his depiction in the film is almost an apology from his successful surviving band mates (he died of AIDS in 1998, the band no longer together, and suffering not only from his terrible illness but from the many prejudices and fear that surrounded HIV-AIDS at the time).
Parts of it are reductive and simplistic, but in an era where #blacklivesmatter, the message is pertinent.
It also really clearly illustrates his charm, humour, and the fact that without his initial investments and business savvy (admittedly gained as a drug dealer and general petty criminal) there would never have been a band. The actor who plays him is never unlikeable, and I think to be fair neither was the man he plays. So as a tribute to their fallen comrade, this film can be genuinely moving. Eazy’s realisation that he has HIV-AIDS at a time when that was a death sentence is truly heartbreaking.
So, it’s not the greatest biopic ever, but what makes their music endlessly listenable, is the same in the re-telling. An attempt to make impotent anger something to be expressed and visible. Parts of it are reductive and simplistic, but in an era where #blacklivesmatter, the message is pertinent. If you can’t express your pain, what routes are there for your frustration and anger? If not through art, do you turn to violence? To drugs? To crime?
These men made a massive difference in allowing other men and women to have a means to express the frustration at a system they could not change. The film is not perfect, but when it hits the mark it does it so completely that it allows the more tired trope elements to be ignored.
Overall, it attempts to describe a litigious oppression that enabled and created many of the men and women treated systematically with contempt to feel like they either didn’t matter, or that they had no choice but to rebel against a system that was never in their favour. It’s worth seeing, and pushing past its obvious flaws for that.