Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Rap and hip-hop are enjoying a longer run of popular success than did rock and roll.  Rock was the dominant music in the United States between 1955-85, during which time it influenced all other forms of musical expression, from folk and blues to  jazz and neo-classical.  Rock  and roll hasn’t completely disappeared from the scene, but it is at best a marginalized genre. With its most successful artists well into middle age, it caters more to the nostalgia than the youth market. It’s hottest titles are  repackaged hits from the past. Hip-hop, having  insinuated itself into almost all genres of popular music, has replaced rock and roll as the dominant music, not only in the US, but in the most of the Western world.

There have been a heap of rap records made in the last thirty years, but none has equaled NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” Released in 1988, it remains the standard by which every new rapper is measured.  Hip hop has gone off into every possible direction, like a world jukebox with an evolving rhythm section, but straight rap is still rooted in the lyrical connection between  the poet and the audience, and when the poetry is phony, as has been the case with most of NWA’s imitators from The Game to 50 Cent, neither the rapper nor the rhymes enjoy any staying power.

Even though 27 years have passed, the tracks from “Straight Outta Compton,”  still hit hard. The truth in their observation and fury has never lost its relevance. Not only that, but the truths are laced with a playful sense of humor that still makes us laugh.  Even if you haven’t listened to the album in a while, you still remember the poetry and the voices, and if you go to see the semi-fictionalized film bio that just opened in theaters across the country, you might even feel the way you felt when you watched the cops beat the shit out of Rodney King on the television news in 1991.

That was a different kind of outrage than what has been expressed during the recent murder spree by US police.  Today’s outrage is filtered through and manipulated by a barrage of media interlopers, who cajole the protesters to soften the   “Fuck the Police” rhetoric to a mournfully hopeful chorus of  “A Change is Gonna Come.  Instead of following Public Enemy’s  charge to fight the power, they are accepting the homilies that tell them that most police are moral, upstanding and just enforcers of the law. And what I found most shocking of all was President Obama’s comment, when a peaceful protest threatened to become violent, that it was a tragedy, but good teevee.”

Everybody concerned needs a reality check, and “Straight Outta Compton” is a good place to start.  Granted, Compton was a hellish place to live in the mid-80’s, with gangs  terrorizing the neighborhoods, when a person might be afraid to sit on their front porch lest they be the victim of a drive-by shooting.  And the police answer to the problem was to treat all black people as criminals.  And the people answer to that shit  was “Fuck the Police.”  And the police answered, “Shut the fuck up and get your ass on the ground and your hands behind your head.”  This is the setting for “Straight Outta Compton,” and the demand of NWA for the right to free speech can only be understood in the context of a police state that brutalizes those who refuse to be silenced.

Directed by F. Gary Gray, whose resume includes directing several Ice Cube videos, as well as the feature film “Friday,” which was written by and starred Ice Cube, “Straight Outta Compton” is as close to the truth as any mainstream film has come in recreating the place and time during which NWA did their best work.  The story focuses on how leader Eazy-E’s relationship with manager Jerry Heller led to the break-up of the group, and how the eventual firing of Heller and reconciliation of group members came too late, as Eazy-E’s  death from AIDS came before the group could reunite and make another record.  As Heller, Paul Giamatti is every bit as repulsive as he was as the quack doctor in “Love & Mercy.” I have never been able to stand Giamatti and wonder to what extent his own personality is being manifested in these characters.

I wish more attention had been given to all the NWA members, instead of focusing on Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E, but reductionism is the name of the game for screenwriters, so such whittling is to be expected.   Fortunately, the primary members have been intelligently cast, and Gray gets believable performances from all three.

After Ice Cube, who was the chief songwriter, left the group, its material degenerated to trashy, pornographic lyrics and unfocused rants glamorizing violence.  Gray does not address this element of the group’s decline, focusing instead on the brilliant material from “Straight Outta Compton.” So we are not getting a complete picture of the band’s history, but an idealized portrait that shifts the blame for their demise away from the inferior material onto manager Heller’s creative accounting.  Rather than show the band at work after Ice Cube’s departure, he follows Cube’s and later Dre’s, solo career, both of which branch out to include the work of other artists who will influence the direction rap music will take in the wake of NWA.

Gray never shies away from the criminal element in the world of rap music.  His portrait of Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records and suspected killer of both Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, is frightening, and the scene in which Dr. Dre breaks from him as suspenseful as any dramatic scene in which a gangster tries to leave the Mafia.   NWA has been criticized for promoting violence, and while that is true for their later records, I don’t believe it is so for “Straight Outta Compton,”  which attempts to give voice to all sides in a world that is ruled by violence, by the law as well as the outlaws.

At this year’s Academy Awards,  John Legend and Common accepted their award for best song with an off-base claim that Selma was Ferguson, Missouri.  No.  It was not.  Selma was Selma. Ferguson was Compton.  The difference between the movies “Selma” and “Straight Outta Compton”    is that “Selma.” like “12 years a Slave,” was a British picture, with British actors playing black Americans, and not understanding a whit about Black America. “Straight Outta Compton,” however, is a movie made by black Americans who understand the story they tell, and the actors understand the characters they play.  This isn’t another high-toned BBC-styled interpretation of American history by foreigners , but a lived-in and lived-through  slice of history in a country that hasn’t changed in its use of violence against the powerless.  Whether the perpetrator is  Suge Knight or Michael Slager,  the victim is always somebody’s brother or son.

“Straight Outta Compton” reminds us that words are more powerful than the gun, that words can be used violently, and that the police know this and are prone to react violently towards those who refuse to be silent when they are ordered to shut up.  Rap music is the art of making war with words.  It is not the expression of violence through the use of lethal weapons.  Every day in the United States, some depressed, desperate person murders his wife, his family, a stranger, or maybe himself, because he has no words to express the violent feelings burning up his guts.   “Straight Outta Compton” is no sugar-coated Obama speech that promises change in a world where the same crap happens day after day. It is a song  sung by a singer who stands up when he is ordered to lie down,  to let the words fly when he is ordered to shut up.  In today’s courts of law, they call that contempt.  In 1791, it was the first amendment to the United States Constitution.

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