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Straight Outta Compton; And the Social Ramifications of Male Dominated Art

September 1, 2015

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterIn Aaron McGruder’s socially conscious series “The Boondocks”, famed animated rapper Thugalicious sites Ice Cube as the person he looked up to as a kid. In a short, hilarious conversation between Thugalicious and his 9-year-old fellow captive, Riley, the two perfectly assesses Ice Cube’s status in society then and now as Thugalicious revels his terrifying reverence for Ice Cube as a youth, to which Riley asks “that dude that makes family movies? He was a gangsta rapper?”

What this small scene explicates so well in those few seconds is the legacy and transformation of rap’s most iconic groups, the theme of F. Gary Gray’s musical biopic Straight Outta Compton. Gangster rap was in its gestation period when NWA exploded on the scene in the late 1980s. They helped give birth to a movement of socially reflexive music that displayed the life of the streets to mainstream audiences. NWA and the onslaught of rappers who followed in the early 1990s perfected the craft of storytelling their rough lives to classic, hard-hitting beats securing a place in pop culture. The success of recent decades copycats and trend riders who frequently look to the streets as muses for their music is owed to NWA and the pioneers before them.

Straight Outta Compton is the rags to riches story of how five teens from Compton, L.A. became the most prolific musicians of a generation and how their influence has stayed unremitting. Taking on the project as director and producer, F. Gary Gray, like he has done so many times in the past, brings fresh faces to the screen prompting fantastic performances from them in order to relay stories of a time in history that hasn’t been showcased on screen since the 1990s. Gray stylizes the career and pitfalls of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy E, MC Ren and DJ Yella through dramatic low lighting and flexible camera work that moves every which way to detail the day-to-year lives of the group. Gray stabilizes his veteran status through impressive skill behind the camera using long shots to stylistically set the tone of scenes, implementing chest mounted cameras to dramatically fall with a character, while adding an extra layer of tension to scenes through careful blocking.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to say if Gray glamorizes NWA’s story or not despite stylizing it. The script itself slyly acts as a buffer to this very inquiry allowing characters of the film to incidentally answer when asked if their music is a glorification of street life. They aptly reply that it’s just a depiction of their reality. Gray and screenplay writers, Andrea Berloff and Johnathan Herman, gloss over the more troublesome aspects of the members of NWA reiterating the question of whether the film is an intended glorification of the group and their actions or not. Dee Barnes wrote in Gawker of her own infamous run in with Dr. Dre at a party that left her battered while Dre’s ex-fiancee Michele’le has been vocal about the abuse she endured for some time now. Both aspects are completely ignored in the film produced by Dre himself. In fact, Andre Young is painted as a sensitive entrepreneur with an undoubtedly hot temper, but one aimed at defending what he believes and those he loves. No where in the film is Dre, Easy, or Cube’s notoriously misogynistic words and ways represented.

While I understand the angle from which Straight Outta Compton focuses and the cultural lens it chooses to view, I think it’s irresponsible to make a film about these men without addressing an issue just as important and latent in their careers; their attitudes and relationships with women. The script’s primary focus is on race relations and the police brutality that was so famously known of in the 1990s. Rodney King’s stark brutal beating by police officers is a major centerpiece of the second and strongest half of the film. The police brutality that spawned the song “Fuck the Police” is put on display in highly dramatic form throughout to highlight the lack of progress that has been achieved when our headlines are still rife with stories of police brutality and shootings of African Americans and other minorities.

The stunning performances from O’Shea Jackson Jr, Jason Mitchell, and Corey Hawkins capture the depths of the men who created NWA and the internal and external demons they battled to sustain the group and their authenticity. Straight Outta Compton is more of a time capsule of the social consciousness and cultural movement of the early 90’s. A time when gang mentality was at its most dangerous. When wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood could have a fatal effect. NWA was a cultural phenomenon that expsosed the brutalities, mindsets, and desires from within the hood to the masses. As a long time fan of their music I am proud they received a mainstream acceptance, even more so that millions of Americans still believe in their overall message enough to allow Straight Outta Compton to flourish as a box office smash.

Despite all the glory, Gray and company should still be held accountable for the truths they refused to portray and the misogynistic ideals that gets regarded throughout the film by leaving out important female influences of the time and ignoring a very real issue that is still discussed today. Even Taylor Hackford’s Ray and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up touch on the harsh truths of their film’s subjects. There are many scenes in Straight Outta Compton that should have been left on the cutting room floor due to its lack of adding any depth or information to the story. It’s a shame that the women who played major roles in the lives and careers of NWA weren’t even scenes to be among those cut.

SEE IT. It’s still an entertaining well made film that highlights the “good” aspects of NWA and the dope songs its members created.

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