I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the cinema, cookie dough ice-cream in hand, for Straight Outta Compton. This time around, I broke my usual rule of going in completely uninformed, as I had read a fair bit about the film during its breakout success in the States. I was intrigued, hesitant, and, full disclosure, am not much of a gangster rap aficionado (though my brother has certainly tried his best to help me foster an appreciation for the genre). All this said, I left the film certain of one thing: Straight Outta Compton is a film constructed to perfectly mirror the musical revolution it sets out to catalogue, coupling explosive energy with sequences pregnant with fear and distrust. It is both a thrilling tribute to a game-changing period in music history and a confident and well-crafted piece on race in America, tying together many echoes of contemporary injustice to the context that catalysed N.W.A. in the first place.
The film begins with snapshots of the founding members before their careers as musicians and performers, each with distinct formative experiences of Compton. We first meet a young Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) lying on a piles of album covers that carpet his bedroom floor as he traces the curves of an imaginary turntable in the air before him, headphones on and eyes closed, the music washing over him and the audience. This sequence exhibits the one of the film’s great strengths, as it combines entertaining and visceral filmmaking with sophisticated visualisation of a musical escape from poverty that soon proves quite literal. Similarly, Ice Cube (played by the OG Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) scribbles lyrics on a notepad while riding the school bus home, when some students antagonise a car of gangsters who stop the bus and burst inside brandishing guns at the instigators, advocating ‘gangbanging books’ and finding a better life in a nice, if tense, subversion. Compton’s specificity plays an ambivalent role throughout, both as an obstacle to be overcome—one record label exec remarks ‘if they were from New York, maybe, but not Compton’ on the marketability of gangster rap—and a source of the experiential fuel for the anthems that catapulted N.W.A. to the musical forefront in the early 90’s.
The parallel between the liberty of the recording studio and the resultant pushback from the predominantly white media (and other associated cultural and social authorities, most notably the LAPD) is woven masterfully throughout. A particularly amusing moment comes when the N.W.A. tour bus drives past a demonstration outside their venue, as a crowd of mostly whites drive steamrollers over mounds of their recently released album. The violent and uncomfortable tension is quickly broken when Easy E shrugs and remarks, with an air of victory, ‘Well, they bought em’. Shortly afterwards, police officers forcibly shut down a concert in Detroit, sending the audience running after firing warning shots, and eventually arresting the group on grounds of inciting violence. The lead-up to the arrest depicts officers raising their badges alongside the outstretched arms of fans, encroaching on the stage menacingly but also impotently, diluted by arms indistinguishable but for the lack of badges. Near the end of the film, Ice Cube calls out a journalist for painting him as an authority for the black experience in order to capture a buzz worthy headline. There is subtlety here, and similarly to The Wolf of Wall Street and 8 Mile, to say that the film is solely about glamorising wealth or the badassery of rappers respectively would be shamefully reductive.
Where the film loses my attention, perhaps unavoidably but nevertheless inexcusably, is its deeply ingrained misogyny. When women aren’t literally being thrown around or tossed aside, their role rarely rises beyond jiggling past the camera during the frankly ridiculous number of pool party scenes. Even in key moments of dramatic tension (such as when the mother of Dr. Dre’s child interrupts a recording session to tell him rent is overdue) or tenderness (when Andre meets his future wife at another goddamn pool party), there is no consequence or any narrative weight given at all. Women simply happen to the main characters, and that is a very serious problem. But as said previously, the film’s treatment of race is keenly considered, refreshing and effective. Does that give it a pass? Of course not. It is frustrating that a film that does such a good job of giving an authentic voice to a historically silenced group (outside of the music itself) also so effectively silences another in the process.
The film’s opening drug bust sequence is a perfect example. In it, squadrons of SWAT-level equipped police use a battering ram to smash open a drug dealer’s home, tearing the whole front of the house asunder in the process and painting a haunting image of police brutality in the sheer overkill of the act. Contrastingly, just before Easy E (Jason Mitchell) makes his escape across nearby rooftops, he smashes open a door and sends a woman trying to dispose of drug paraphernalia flying unambiguously comically across the room, which a few of my fellow cinemagoers laughed at. Within moments of one another, violence against blacks is treated with artistic integrity and thoughtful consideration, but violence against women is unabashedly funny. I wasn’t among the chuckling few. For more on this topic, I thoroughly recommend Helen O’Hara’s deeper and more ambivalent thoughts in her piece on feminism and other -isms in film.
Straight Outta Compton has already received a huge amount of credit (and money) for being an enjoyable and thrilling account of the legendary rap quintet, and it does an exceptional job of balancing fiction with fact for maximum impact. It feels extremely high production value thanks to cinematography that seems like what would happen if The Wire crew shot a music video, while also belting out well-earned emotional highs and lows thanks to a bouncy script and notable performances across the board. While I won’t be humming Fuck tha Police on my walk home from the tube (straight from the underground), the film’s success in fostering a vital and accessible dialogue on race while also being extremely entertaining proves it one of the must-sees of the summer.