Box Office Democracy: Straight Outta Compton

When I saw the first trailer for Straight Outta Compton I leaned over to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my God, are they making the story of N.W.A into a white savior movie?” and she looked back at me with fear in her eyes. It was a bad trailer, rather an unrepresentative one, which made it look like a movie about Jerry Heller trying to get the police and the music establishment to treat his clients with respect. That would have been a terrible movie, a tragic misrepresentation of the struggles that really took place. The movie we got is a powerful touchstone piece in documenting and dramatizing the rise of West Coast gangster rap.

I wish Straight Outta Compton felt as old as it is. That we could look at the events of this movie, now a quarter of a century gone, and think of them as the past when instead it feels like the present. The world they show us to contextualize the writing of “Fuck tha Police” feels very much like the world we see so very often on the news or in our own communities. The anger and the despair and the hopelessness of the situation feels so current and relevant and it only magnifies these feelings to know we’ve accomplished so little in the intervening years when it comes to policing minority populations. These are powerful scenes, the most affecting ones that I can remember seeing on the topic and if this movie does nothing but inspire this feeling of discontent in a few more people it will be a remarkable success.

Luckily, it does a few more things very well. The acting is generally superb; especially O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s work pretending to be his own father, a task that I have to imagine is one of the strangest tasks an actor would ever have to attempt. Corey Hawkins does a good job of playing Dr. Dre with the quiet rage I’ve always associated with him and showing it build, ebb, and flow in a natural manner. It’s an inexperienced cast and that inexperience sometimes shines through but they generally do great work. I was quite impressed with the scope of the picture, it starts as an N.W.A piece but then branches out through everyone’s respective solo careers and it helps to illustrate how influential these men were in launching other enterprises and helping along the careers of so many others. It stops short of getting into Ice Cube playing a police captain in the 21 Jump Street franchise and the irony therein but I suppose it was already a long film. Straight Outta Compton also does its part in establishing that Suge Knight is a real-life cartoon supervillain and I think that is an important detail to share with future generations that might watch this movie.

There’s a problem with the way Straight Outta Compton handles its female characters. Most of the women on screen in this film are some manner of groupie, party girl, or otherwise objectified woman with barely any lines. The exceptions are wives and mothers and while it’s nice to have that change of pace that isn’t really a less sexist depiction. Every woman is either a Madonna or a whore with nowhere in between. This is an accurate reflection of how bad the gangster rap movement was for the status of black women but one would hope that time and perspective might lend itself to a more nuanced look back. I don’t need the characters in the film to say or do things differently than they really happened but it would have been nice to get some indication that the filmmakers know this kind of conduct is wrong or damaging.

The music biopic is a genre that feels perpetually stale, and Straight Outta Compton is definitely not a stale film. It has all the little issues that biographical films will always have, character and event compression makes for some moments that feel as fantastical as people commanding ants through a metal helmet but there’s a passion and an energy I haven’t felt in one of these films in a long time, maybe ever. This is an important band who did important things at an important time and it’s important to remember their struggle and try to contextualize it for people who weren’t there or who couldn’t pay it the proper attention. If not for this movie there was a real danger that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would be remembered by the next generation as an actor and a headphone mogul and if this movie keeps their other work in our collective consciousness it is doing our culture a great service.