Movie Review : Straight Outta Compton (2015)
I know what you're going to tell me. It doesn't make any sense to review this movie in 2018, since it disappeared from the cultural dialogue after an egregious Oscar snub, two years ago. And you're not wrong... or are you? I've been a hip-hop fan for as long as I can remember consciously enjoying music and the members of NWA have been a consistent presence in my life ever since. What was it about their music that is so powerful and why is it remember more fondly that it was first received? Straight Outta Compton mischievously explores these questions and then some.
For those of you who didn't already know, Straight Outta Compton is the story of NWA, arguably the first gangsta rap outfit to ever attract mainstream coverage. With that came a moral and legal panic around their violent lyrics and their now iconic song Fuck the Police, which put a lot of pressure on what was essentially five high school friends from one of the worst neighborhood in America. That and the abrupt lifestyle changes brought by their overnight success would eventually get the better of NWA, but their key members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (played by his own son O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) would go on and become hip-hop royalty.
I've learned a couple things from Straight Outta Compton, mostly contextual. For example, that NWA relied so much on Ice Cube for their lyrics that his departure basically doomed the band. Not that he left for selfish reasons, mind you. The band's notoriously shady manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) was not exactly transparent with their finances. But it doesn't matter how much documentary value Straight Outta Compton has, it's not why it's interesting. This movie is revisionist history of one of the last great moral panics in America. The one where our parents were afraid that these black kids talking about guns and drugs would change us into gangsters.
NWA were villains in pre-internet America, where people solely relied on mainstream media to get their information. They were angry, boastful and eager to share stories of sex and violence. There were "evil", like rock n' rollers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were considered "evil" three decades prior. But like for their spiritual forefathers, the art of NWA was the reflection of something that was willfully ignored by America. And when you're getting brutalized by police everyday, locked up and not given a chance to succeed, you get pretty angry and in-your-face about it. Straight Outta Compton deconstructs that binary view of the world we're still clinging on to and that's what made it an interesting viewing.
And that's also why NWA's music and legacy is so important still today. Gangsta rap lifted the veil of the darkest realities of black communities using a medium and emotions that reached young people. So, we've grown up aware of their reality for better or worse. Because of NWA and their successors, we're much more informed about the reality of drugs, street gangs and police abuse. That's why they're so fondly remembered today. Half of Straight Outta Compton is about the post-NWA era where Dr. Dre co-founded Death Row Records, Ice Cube wrote Friday and everything. It's also important because it shows how they became part of popular culture. These guys have grown with us. We saw them getting older and more successful and it gave us a better appreciation of what they went through.
I've enjoyed Straight Outta Compton, like I thought I would. It's perhaps more interesting if you didn't know as much about the band as I personally did, but it's an interesting movie merely because it exists. It's a movie that explores how ideas grow in public consciousness. Just the mere fact of you watching is a change of paradigm from the events that it depicts. It's a bit of a mindfuck, I know. But it's my kind of mindfuck. If watching it in 2018 should serve any purpose, it's to remind ourselves that we should be past thinking about the world in terms of good and evil.