Straight Outta Compton — For All to See

straightOuttaF. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton is a film about the group NWA as it emerged from the streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionized Hip Hop culture with their music and culture of their lives in the hood. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Antonio Hawkins), and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) are the musical leaders in a tenuous relationship with their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).

Gray’s Compton could have been just another one in a long line of other biopics, but my take on this movie is that while films about Ray Charles, James Brown, or the Jersey Boys, for instance, expose racism and the hedonistic trappings and even self-destruction in celebrity life, Gray’s Compton takes things a step further and shows musicians who took matters into their own hands in a bold way.

The film’s narrative is what one might expect: ordinary artists getting their first big break, leaping to sudden success and fame (along with money and sex and drugs, of course), but the similarity breaks off there. The Artists in N.W.A. did not show up to sing in suit and tie. They looked like and sounded like the world they came from. The leap from South Central L.A. to the fame and wealth of celebrity life is rendered without much romantic nostalgia — tales of “bad things happening to good people,” or vice versa. In fact, what I like about Gray’s film is that it rightly blurs the difference between what qualifies as “good or bad. ”

What does come through clearly is that Gansta Rap (and earlier genres of Hip Hop) happened for relevant reasons and were cultural assets. The musical and literary forms reflected the artists’ experiences. Through Gray’s lens on N.W.A. we hear their battle songs positioned not as threats, but as a confrontation directed at law enforcement, a manipulative commercial entertainment producer, and even at organized crime.

Finally, as the film unfolds it becomes poignant, as Straight Outta Compton rings true against a backdrop of current headlines, and we see why “Black lives matter.” This is not a film about living happily ever after. Straight Outtta Compton shows ways to understand and humanize the troubling narratives that divide us. There is something for everyone here, check it out: