Thursday, October 1, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

There’s no doubt Straight Outta Compton is relevant to our current social moment, and no question its success indicates something important.  The film is a biopic on recognizable black tastemakers that chronicles not only a significant contribution to the cultural landscape, but also highlights the injustices often suffered by a group at the hands of a corrupt system.  It’s a conversation we need to be having, and one illustrated clearly as a subplot to NWA’s story.  

There are moments of strong pathos in Straight Outta Compton, and with the audience it’s reaching, we can’t discount the possible impact of those situations.  And yes, it’s good to see a film with a mostly black cast reign at the box office.  And yes, it’s important to send a message to Hollywood about the voices audiences want to see represented.  And as a whole, Straight Outta Compton is a smartly cast, very structured example of a conventional filmmaking.  But here’s the thing: for all the fuss – positive and negative (yes, the film’s treatment of women is abysmal) – the film is ultimately just another overcooked, too long, selectively edited Hollywood biopic with a sense of vague hero worship and a focus on too much, too fast.

Beyond the box office dollar count and the occasion marked by its subject matter, there’s nothing new about Compton’s approach.  As the story stretches well beyond the early days of NWA’s formation into solo records, turf ward, and legal troubles, the film succeeds in both sanitizing the group and problematizing them.  The clean-up occurs via the film’s structure: it’s a bland exploration of a unique set of circumstances that seems to flatten the landscape and drain the title location of its significance.  We’re told, constantly, that life is tough, but the struggles seem at a distance in the film’s earlier moments, or, when they’re not, so pointed that it’s a bit like NWA as packaged by NPR. 

An early scene in which  a young Ice Cube’s (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) school bus is pulled over at gunpoint by a gang member is frightening in theory, silly and preachy in execution.  The occasion stands as a means of contrasting kids like Cube and Dre (Corey Hawkins) from the dangers of their neighborhood, and so it’s interesting that as they grow to become a group who seems to bring an armory to luxury hotels, who destroy the offices of their record labels, or who get tangled up in the dangerous web of Suge Knight, the story never seems to get beyond this.  Even as the guys find themselves grappling with success and self-serving behaviors, they seem like flat rock star antics and are quickly forgiven and forgotten.  Consequences don’t really exist – unless we’re talking about Eazy-E’s (Jason Mitchell) untimely death – and though NWA’s message is anarchic, the film flits through events and instances with all the energy of a VH1 rockumentary. 

By the end, though I appreciated the performances and certainly the soundtrack, I was bored.  It came to feel like a sort of $5 tour of an era peppered with highlighted guest features and in-references.  The last minutes feel brought to you by Beats headphones, and there’s actually a useless moment in which Cube’s wife walks by her husband pounding away at his laptop and says something along the lines of, “hey baby, how’s that script for Friday coming?”  It’s too much.  Like, seriously.  For an earnest teenager with no knowledge of the old school scene, I can see this accumulation of information coming together, but cinematically, Straight Outta Compton is too heavy handed in too many disparate directions.

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