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Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton has been one of the greatest box office surprises of the summer, and this biopic writ large is even generating Oscar buzz. Not the biography of one person but of three (with a couple of others thrown in with lesser roles), Compton relates the origin and early history of rap and hip-hop, at least from the N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), Los Angeles perspective. The film is choppy and confusing at times, but it is filled with energy, and if rap and hip-hop are anything, they are musical forms filled with energy. The script of this film, while far too hagiographic, moves the action constantly, but never fails to form the characters, and this is a very difficult thing to accomplish. It’s brilliant, and the actors fulfill all its promise.

Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., plays his father, and is the strength of the film. Portraying in perfect balance his father’s anger, smarts, drive and basic fair-mindedness, Jackson never falters in showing his love for his fellow band members, his difficulty in leaving the band, when he is getting shafted by their manager (played brilliantly, as usual, by Paul Giamatti), his inability to face the death of Eazy-E, their leader who died of AIDS, and most of all, his love of words and their powerful possibilities. The range of Jackson’s performance draws the viewer into this world, so foreign to most of us, of gang rivalries, depressed neighborhoods, police brutality.

And to praise Jackson should not be taken as damning the other performances in Compton. Everyone is superb—Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and the list could go on and on. It would not be surprising to see each of these young men become stars; they are that good. The variety of situations N.W.A. confronted as they grew up in Compton is extraordinary. In a day when race is at the forefront of almost every political and social discussion in America, the movie helps those of us who cannot imagine what it is like to grow up black in our country to taste at least something of the hurt, the pain, and, yes, the oppression blacks, especially young black men, face. It is a painful movie to watch.

But what is even more painful is to see the response of “gangsta rap” clothe itself entirely in anger. Rage and fury dominate the film until N.W.A. and its members each become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then their greed and materialism begin to compete with their rage. None of this is explored in the movie. Nothing questions any of these responses and the evil done to them. The questions asked by reporters about their foul-mouthed lyrics or their contributions to the violence spawned by their concerts are answered by weak appeals to their “art” and their “freedom of speech.” An eye for an eye is consistently the ethic of Compton.

The movie is not for the faint of heart. Of course the lyrics of rap are filled with cursing of every kind, and guns, drugs and sex are everywhere in this movie. Unfortunately, that is the life of the characters portrayed in Straight Outta Compton, and we should not berate the filmmakers for portraying them that way. We should weep for them.

Drew Trotter

August 26, 2015

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