The musical biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday), is for some a walk down memory lane and for others an education.
Starring Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren and Jason Mitchell as the late Eazy-E — the members of revolutionary rap group, N.W.A. — “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of how five youth rose above the socio-economic perils of Compton, L.A.
In the 70s and 80s, HipHop music exploded onto the scene, taking cues from its Soulful predecessor and giving another voice to both anti-oppression and the joys of living in the ghetto. In the mid-80s, gangsta rap emerged from the “streets” of South L.A. and illuminated the realities of living in the hood.
Police brutality, drug economies, gang activity, gun violence, high crime rates, poor property value — institutional warfare against the poor and the Black — are topics written about in N.W.A.’s music.
During the ascension of this new art form and of the group new ideas about what is means to “tell the truth” developed. Heavy cursing, derogatory labels, set battles, etc all became popular tools for confronting the ails of the social and economic pitfalls of Compton. Compton then became a cultural symbol of all hoods across the globe.
This not only changed rap music and the way young people saw themselves and the world, but it gave rise to the political engine that would revel in censorship, publicly spotlighting journalistic duplicity and judicial bullying.
A musical revolution was born.
With phenomenal performances, a colorful script and good beats, this movie chronicles the significant affects the music had on its environment, including suburban ones which led politicians to up the ante on their “explicit lyrics” campaigns and cities to increase police presence at public events.
But does it serve the purpose of a good biopic?
The Dr. Dre character is erected as the film’s hero. We see a young talent with a dream. He comes from a single mother home in an area riddled with crime and social apathy. He is already a father and he looks after his hot-head younger brother.
But this world is shut out by the beats. They are an escape — a major theme in Black society as well as this movie, giving a double meaning to straight outta Compton.
If Dre can make his audience move, make them get away like he does, he knows he can go somewhere.
He enlists friends Cube, the writer, Yella the DJ and Ren the MC. He needs a money man, a producer to get his idea off the ground and that’s where Eazy-E enters.
After that, the movie kind of glosses over the music through a hilarious montage set in the recording studio. We see a few concert performances, including a significant one and that’s pretty much it.
Though the music can serve as a walk down memory lane or an introduction to some game-changing rap, the real attraction is the bond these boys build. They become brothers. Their relationship and the challenges against it are what really make “Straight Outta Compton” compelling.
The only two downfalls are one) they get a little fast and loose with the story elements, bringing in characters Snoop Dog and Tupac and a myriad of others, but with no real impact. It gets tricky because viewers know that these people existed and belong in the tome, but as characters they serve no dramatic purpose.
And two) there is no recognizable moral. Our hero is a hero. He faces obstacles of evil and we see him (and his crew) wanting to escape the brutality of their circumstances, as well as to escape themselves, but in the end there isn’t a clear message. An AIDS education message as the central moral of the movie would be really ridiculous, especially since it’s not directly connected with the hero.
The audience is left sympathizing with these characters, but perhaps having learned nothing from them. The focus is pulled too tightly on the parallels to the police brutality of then and now. It is an important point to make, but it distracts from the story itself, leaving viewers with little to chew on.
It’s conceivable that an audience is meant to go away thinking: don’t be promiscuous; don’t abandon your brothers; don’t let money separate you from what you love; don’t let jackin’ with crazy killers separate you from what you love. Not really clear.
It’s possible that in the end the lesson is simply to return to the passion, return to the beat. No matter how off course a road leads, always return to what made the road worth traveling and then make better choices along the way.
Whether it be business, writing, music, whatever be fueled by passion rather than cashing checks.