Straight Outta Compton is a good movie that almost gets away.
Its main weakness isn’t the acting, the lighting, the costume design or the soundtrack, all of which are excellent. It’s the editing. Straight Outta Compton tries to do too much in too little time. It has a compelling story to tell. In fact, it has three, maybe four, maybe even five compelling stories to tell. I just wish it hadn’t tried to tell them all in 147 minutes. It would have been a much better movie if it had picked just one and stuck with it, but it’s still more entertaining than at least half the movies that got nominated for Best Picture.
NWA, or “Niggers With Attitude,” was an important rap group that came out of Los Angeles in the late 1980s. To give you an idea of how important they were, I’ve not only heard of them. I’ve sung “Fuck the Police,” their most famous song, on the way to jail in the paddy wagon. The movie begins in 1986. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre are three teenagers growing up in Los Angeles, all working overtime to prove their manhood in the violent, gang-ridden culture of Compton. The actors do an excellent job of presenting them as individuals. Eazy-E is sensitive, perhaps even “soft.” Dr. Dre is businesslike and intellectual, the “brains” of the group. Ice Cube is angry, rebellious, and immensely talented. While all three might appear to be trying just a little too hard to be “hard,” they’re really just living by the rules of their society. Acting like a “gangsta” is as normal in Compton as going to football games is in Texas.
The biggest gang in Compton isn’t the Crips or the Bloods. It’s the Los Angeles Police Department. Similar to the way they’re portrayed in Walter Hill’s classic film The Warriors, the police in Straight Out of Compton seem to be as much a part of the landscape as they do a man made institution, a force of nature the people of Compton have to deal with just like earthquakes or droughts. It’s an aesthetic strength and an aesthetic weakness. It conveys the ubiquitous quality of their presence, but it also it fails to get beneath the surface. The police are just there. In the real world they defend capitalism. In Since Straight Out of Compton, which has ambiguous, even confused views about capitalism, they remain part of the landscape, a mass of jackbooted fascists whose only purpose in life seems to be to harass black people.
One of the film’s best scenes shows the members of NWA being stopped and frisked on the side walk outside the recording studio where they’re cutting their first album. Jerry Heller, their white Jewish manager comes out and loudly defends them. The most viciously fascist cop is a black man who hates rap music. It’s great drama. It also points to the central ideological theme of the film, one that sometimes gets buried in the script’s lack of focus. Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff have set up a confrontation between a fascist black police officer – I don’t know how many black sergeants and lieutenants there were in the LAPD in 1989 but I wouldn’t guess very many – and a white capitalist who later turns out to be a sleazy, manipulative cheat. In other words, capitalism and the fascist state both exploit and oppress black musicians and artists owe it to one another to stick together in solidarity against both. It’s an excellent point, and one the film should have focused on more tightly. Indeed, if Straight Outta Compton had organized itself around the song Fuck the Police the way Godard’s film Sympathy for the Devil organized itself around the song Sympathy for the Devil, it would have been the masterpiece Sympathy for the Devil wasn’t.
The best scenes in Straight Outta Compton come towards the middle of the film. Ice Cube, the most radical member of NWA, and the mostly clearly defined character in the movie, continually pushes, not only against the police, but against the record companies. When the FBI sends a threatening letter to Jerry Heller demanding that they no longer play their signature song, Fuck the Police, Ice Cube angrily rejects Heller’s advice that they censor themselves to avoid trouble. Easy-E and Dr. Dre then point out that that letter is “an opportunity not a threat,” that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, especially when it gives them the chance to pose as defenders of free speech. It works. In what should have been the film’s climax, NWA plays a concert in Detroit. The Detroit Police don’t send a threatening letter. They show up to make their threats in person. If NWA plays Fuck the Police they will be arrested, and sued by the state. Of course they go on stage and play Fuck the Police. It’s an incredibly heavy-handed and oppressive demand that any self-respecting artist would defy. As Ice Cube begins to sing, the drama shifts to the potentially violent conflict between the Detroit Police and NWA’s audience. The crowd is huge. How can the police possibly shut it down. Ice Cube continues singing until a shot conveniently rings out somewhere in the auditorium. We never really find out who it was but of course the police did it. The band members run off the stage. The crowd riots, and the film is successful at capturing the rowdy, almost insurrectional atmosphere that characterized the best rap concerts in the late 80s and early 90s.
To be honest, I don’t think the director realized what a great scene he filmed. He cuts it short, drops the whole issue, and moves on to the conflicts that eventually lead to NWA’s breakup. Therein lies Straight Outta Compton’s major weakness. While NWA’s dissolution is a worthy subject for a movie, a screenplay about a breakup has to be tightly constructed. It has to make it easy, even for someone unfamiliar with the history of NWA or rap to understand what’s going on. The second half of Straight Outta Compton feels as if it’s been written for rap aficionados, not the general public. We get a glimpse of the Rodney King riots, a glimpse of the East Coast vs. West Coast feud, and a glimpse of Suge Knight, but none of it really comes together. It feels as if the film is falling apart at the same time the band is falling apart. Straight Outta Compton regains some of its momentum at the end when Easy-E finds out he has AIDS but it’s too little too late. It’s a good, if not great film, but it’s also a lost opportunity.