The movie Straight Outta Compton, released wide in the US yesterday, is a musical poem that efficiently describes the lives many blacks in urban environments lead today and in the 1980s.
This is the story of a group of young black men, living in an African-American community in the town of Compton, Calif., just outside Los Angeles in geography but much farther away in terms of the concentration of crime, drugs, police use of force, even in searches that stretch the limits of the Fourth Amendment, and other signs of violence. They rise above their circumstances and shine brightly, almost as heroes, in a music business where they had no experience and in a revolution where they had no stomach.
The film is “musical” in many senses: the sound track is superb; stories show the relevance of music in our lives; and since JS Bach dedicated a book of preludes and fugues for well-tempered clavier in the Baroque era, music has spoken eternally for, to, and about our soul.
Some parts fall into the trap of Dr Dre sitting at a mixing console and nodding with approval as Eazy-E lays down a track of Ice Cube’s lyrics, but audience members are likely to have the same expressions on their faces as they watch. This is, in effect, a story about music making, and it’s told as those musicians wanted it told. It’s not perfect or even one to hold up as a role model, but that’s largely due to preexisting circumstances in their lives.
The film is a poem because it uses the music business as a metaphor for success and conveys the message to moviegoers, without actually saying it, that regardless of whether people are black or white, rich or poor, they can evolve, escape whatever circumstances may be holding them back, and achieve success, fame, wealth, and even greatness:
- Dr Dre has become a billionaire and co-produced this film
- Ice Cube has become a successful actor and co-produced this film
- DJ Yella has produced movies
- MC Ren has become a music producer
The film is “efficient” in that it leaves out a few details and cuts to the chase on several occasions. Of particular note are the wide brush with which the group’s corrosive lyrics (“Little did he know I had a loaded 12 gauge, One sucker dead, LA Times front page,” for example) are painted and the way lives of members of the actual rap group N.W.A. are glossed over, as these details don’t advance the story in the present movie.
The plot instead zooms in on the relationship between Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and the group’s white manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). That relationship scratches the surface of the tensions that inevitably develop in any relationship between a talented black musician and a white manager whose only interest is in getting rich off of him. Ice Cube (his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr) has the lead supporting role, but MC Ren and DJ Yella barely have any lines. In addition, there’s no creditworthy mention of an early associate, Arabian Prince.
Descriptions of black lives in urban environments are pervasive, but it’s complicated. Once the group achieves success, the parties start, parties that include more rolling female buttocks than I can remember seeing in quite a while. The film is a biopic, so there’s a small sense of historical accuracy in those parties, but it’s also a profit-generating work of art. Sex sells, I suppose.
The underlying story is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. The police, even the black ones, are waiting in the wings every time N.W.A. shows up, ready to censor their speech (although this issue isn’t adequately addressed in the film and leaves the audience somewhat unsatisfied), pound them into the ground, and silence their message any other way they can. There’s some vague reference to the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment, but otherwise, the film ends up pretty close to hero worship. Some of that is well earned, but N.W.A., in getting into a cutthroat music business where even your “friends” don’t have your best interest at heart, bit off more than they could chew.
That clouds the eventual message a little, but not much. The film will stand as an explosive, entertaining story about a hip-hop group and about gangsta rap in general. N.W.A., more than any other group, gave birth to hip-hop in the popular culture of the US.