27 August 2015

The Phony Social Relevance of Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Full cast and crew at IMDb

You can live your life, make your art, in two ways: in service to yourself, or in service to something larger than you, like a community. For the first half of Straight Outta Compton, a feature-length advertisement masquerading as American political history, the boys who form NWA choose the latter; the screenplay, by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (from a story by a few others), posits the members' early singles and the group's debut album as reflections of and responses to the conditions of police oppression—it’s not just their own lives in Compton that their music describes, but the life of the city, which is by no means unique to the place or the time: many people did and will relate to the persistent harassment of law enforcement, which speaks both to the success of the film and the success of the music 25 years ago. “Fuck Tha Police” becomes in the film a rousing anthem, the culmination of their simmering anger and resentment at injustice.

So does giving voice to the voiceless continue to provide success for Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and the rest of the characters? Not really: pretty quickly they abandon the realities of ghetto life for luxe pool parties and spacious recording studios, arguing about contracts and cuts of royalties, pressing records about whether MC Ren or Ice Cube writes better rhymes, smashing up corner offices with baseball bats. When the Rodney King video surfaces, and riots break out when the officers involved are acquitted, it feels totally perfunctory: sure, everyone in the group expresses disbelief as they watch it go down on television, but they don’t create memorable music in response; there's no "Fuck Tha Police II," more resonant than the original. Director F. Gary Gray shows members of the group driving in slow motion through the carnage, but it’s risible; it feels like a lazy way to force gravitas onto a section of the film that lacks it. (The same way all the quiet dramatic scenes have a little sad music by Joseph Trapanese behind them.)

In fact, the movie left me skeptical about whether it’s historically accurate to depict NWA as social-justice warriors, or if the film’s producers (which include Ice Cube and Dr. Dre!) recognized that, given what’s happening in the country at least since Trayvon Martin, there was money to be made from a mainstream film that seemed to address the inequities of modern policework. As one Flavorwire headline put it, in response to observers’ surprise regarding the film’s first-week success, “‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is Only a ‘Surprise Hit’ If You Aren’t Paying Attention.’” But the artists’ careers don’t seem to follow this arc. Ice Cube (played in the film by his son) and Dr. Dre became savvy businessmen, able to parlay their experience and resulting credibility into movie production and headphone sales, even to foster the career of a talent like Eminem—who rapped about himself without ever tapping into the country’s sociopolitical veins. The end credits are a a celebration of the money made by the two surviving stars of NWA, the ones who produced the movie, and the final word of spoken dialogue is, “Aftermath,” the name of Dr. Dre’s record label. Straight Outta Compton isn’t a movie about the social realities of growing up south of Los Angeles—it’s about the commercial success of two guys and their friends, whose stuff you can buy on your way out of the theater.