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If “Straight Outta Compton” doesn’t at least get nominated for Best Picture, it might be time to kick-start a new awards show. Funny, tragic and infuriating, “Compton” manages to effectively juggle more emotions and characters than any biopic you’ve ever seen.
Few films are more timely, as “Compton” depicts a social environment so foreign some ignorant soul could easily discard it as the work of fiction. But the last two years remind us that racism is still alive in many forms: a Fox News anchor’s coded use of the word “thug,” state laws that strip away at equal rights or the mere assumption by critics that a film about rappers wouldn’t sweep at the box office (that’s this film if you’re wondering).
Rap music might be one of the most popular genres in the world today, but the artists of N.W.A experienced a different reality when they first declared, “Cruisin’ down the street in my ‘64.” From the first seen, “Compton” establishes a different tone for a film based on actual events, when Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) flees a crack house during a SWAT team raid. He loves a good jam, but never considered rapping – not until Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) force him to give it a shot.
After one hit song, E’s Ruthless Records emerges, and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) takes notice. While E becomes the public face of N.W.A, Dre and Cube continue to develop more beats and lyrics. I’m sure others were involved, like DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), but “Compton” largely focuses on E, Dre and Cube.
While we enjoy several comedic sequences of musical creation and bro banter, plenty of scenes will evoke anxiety as police officers continually stop and frisk them for the crime of walking while black. From here we see the origins of many songs that directly attack police officers, and the freedom of speech battle that soon follows when their show hits major cities like Detroit.
But then the story changes. That’s the thing about biographies, they don’t align to conventional cinema’s three-act structure. N.W.A is more popular than ever, but Heller seems to be involved in some shady business dealings. And Dre’s new friend, Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), cares more about power than the music.
It’s a complicated web near flawlessly weaved together by director F. Gary Gray, who directed music videos for the real Dre and Cube, along with “Friday”, written by Ice Cube. It’s rare to say a film has something for everyone and to still consider it incredibly well crafted.
But some things might annoy viewers. Cameos by major hip hop artists like Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) feel like fan service, especially watching Dre randomly stumble across the main riff to “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” while Snoop gets the lyrics right on the first try.
That’s minor compared to the film’s primary problem: its treatment of women. One scene in particular might even make you laugh, but you really shouldn’t. Further, all the women in the entire film serve as either support for their men or eye candy. It’s unfortunate that a film can care so much about black men and do so little for black women.
“Selma” director Ava DuVarney contemplated hip hop’s poor treatment of women best in one of many tweets last Sunday after she saw the film.
“To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser,” she said. “Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.”
To be fair, DuVarney greatly praised the film, while acknowledging the paradox at play. But perhaps that’s one way this film succeeds. It doesn’t hide the sexism in the history. It’s there. It might not be as revolting as every sequence of police brutality, but it seeps through every moment a woman appears on screen.
“Straight Outta Compton” enters a long line of biopics made in close proximity to the source material. Jackson is the son of Ice Cube, and he plays the part brilliantly. Plus, Cube and Dr. Dre both produced the film. The latter’s producer credit might explain the missing domestic abuse scenes. The problem is authenticity. What did they leave it out?
Still, “Compton” explores a moment in American history we should all remember. A moment in which flawed characters changed a generation by speaking with a deserved aggression against unchecked prejudice.
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