As you know now, Straight Outta Compton took the box office this weekend, handily. A $57 million opening…in August. It’s an achievement. And now it’s generating some very loud Oscar buzz. First you need the money. They brought in the money. Then you court the Academy. Well, there was a screening this weekend, and apparently the Academy – at least the members who were there – was impressed. Still, that doesn’t mean the old white farts who live in Palm Springs will be moved. After all, as many people have pointed out, the Academy generally does not reward films about black people when they’re not in “subservient roles”. And Straight Outta Compton features a black man (Dr Dre) who went on to become a billionaire. But then again, there’s Ice Cube at the screening, telling the audience that, “I’m not anti-police. I support the police”.
F-ck the police
Comin’ straight from the underground…
It sounds like they’re campaigning already. Which, in a way, would be the ultimate punk. From Compton to the Dolby Theatre? You want ratings. That’s how you get ratings.
So does Straight Outta Compton deserve the hype? I saw it on Friday and we made a point of building in several hours afterwards to discuss and analyse and angst and debate over drinks. It’s that kind of movie event. This is what you want out of the movies, isn’t it? To not be able to leave it alone?
Is Straight Outta Compton a perfect film? No. Is it the most honest film? It was very honest in its depiction of the struggle, as Ava DuVernay tweeted:
He captured the plight of the black artist in general, once consumed by systems and structures not made for them. The struggle is real.— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) August 16, 2015
But many are also pointing out its dishonesty by omission. The misogyny. Dr Dre’s past violence against women totally not addressed. Here’s how Ava DuVernay acknowledged that issue:
To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) August 16, 2015
There follows a provocative discussion in the comments underneath that tweet. And director F Gary Gray’s rationale on the subject was to insist that SOC is not a Dre biopic but an NWA biopic, and so that part of Dre’s past didn’t serve the narrative. The narrative here being the mythology. Dre and Cube were closely involved in the production of this film, in the development of their collective and connected mythology – a mythology born in the hood and raised on drug money. And they wouldn’t be the first filmmakers to gloss over the dark parts in service of that mythology. A recent comparison would be American Sniper. So the game here then, if they’re playing it, is to not only challenge that pattern but co-opt it at the same: if you can whitewash the controversial war hero (and the murderous mob boss and the corrupt Wall Street investment banker), why can’t you glorify the gangster rapper?
In approaching Straight Outta Compton as mythology then, in the company of so many other Hollywood stories that mythologise their controversial subjects, it hits all the key elements. And it has the added advantage of being so right now, so relevant to the countless stories of racial injustice across America, the indignities forced upon people of colour every day in a system that only seems to work for the privileged, making Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E look like prophets – mythology achieved. But the mythology can’t succeed without the fun. Without the high times. Without those scenes of them finding their voices (literally, for Eazy) in the studio. Without that scene of them in the hotel room, getting blow jobs, and chasing suckers down the hall with big guns – punctuated by the origin story of “Bye Felicia”.
You can’t have the mythology without the acting either. And it’s perhaps the acting that takes you the most by surprise. Jason Mitchell, who plays Eazy, had it all down – the smirk, the groove, the charm, every expression. It’s amazing. And there were several scenes in the movie where I couldn’t tell O’Shea Jackson Jr from his father, Ice Cube. These young actors are so good, SO good, that they made Paul Giamatti look like he was over-acting, the weakest one in the cast. Paul Giamatti! The weakest! What does that tell you? That the casting was CRAZY. And not just for the main characters but also in the cameos. Like Suge Knight is exactly Suge Knight. Tupac? Tupac was more realistic than the hologram! Snoop was as smooth as the real D, O, double G. Every time one of these appearances comes up, it’s a high point for the audience.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t disjointed. It is. Sarah notes that the first half is far superior to the clunky second half. And there are definitely scenes that make you eyeroll – two scenes in particular involving Cube, sitting on his couch, cuddling his wife, watching television, like As IF that’s how sedate and domestic his life was when all that sh-t was going down. What saves the second half though is the black and white sequence that shows what it was like on Crenshaw after the Rodney King verdict. And the two bandanas, one blue, the other red, tied together in truce.
Because you can’t go hard the whole time. Mythology can’t work without tenderness, moments of love and of loss. Where do you find that in Compton? A fallen leader. And this film is also a love letter to him. Eazy is arguably the main character. We open on Eazy. We end on missing Eazy and wondering “what if” had Eazy not died. Dre and Cube position themselves as the talent – Dre’s wizardry as a producer, Cube’s gift for the writing – but it was Eazy’s charisma too that took them to next level. One of my biggest takeaways after seeing SOC (the first time) was that this was honoured.
But really, there is so much to talk about, so much to feel conflicted about, so much to doubt, and, at the same time, so much to celebrate I can’t fit it all into one post. Every year, one movie breaks out of August to become The One. Did you think it would be Compton?