So let’s talk about race. You can’t talk about Straight Outta Compton without talking about race, because that’s the issue that drove the music that drove the controversy that is still driving a dialogue today. Spike Lee isn’t organizing a boycott of the Oscars because Will Smith didn’t get nominated for Concussion. It’s happening because Straight Outta Compton, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, was all but ignored when handing out nominations. Should it have been nominated for Best Picture? The Academy had two slots it could have used, but didn’t. It’s one of the strongest years for film in a decade, so is there a real snub in F. Gary Gray’s biopic of the rap group, NWA, not being a bigger part of the Oscars? After seeing it, I have to say, yes. This is a better film, a more compelling film, than at least two of the films the Academy chose to nominate for Best Picture. I could also list several others that are better than both those films and this, but I can see the reason for the anger. It’s a mirror of the anger that the film chronicles.
Straight Outta Compton follows the rise and fall of NWA, the group that pioneered the “gangsta rap” movement and sparked a national controversy with its raw, violent, racially charged lyrics. This is the group that dropped “F**k the Police” on an America hadn’t seen the Rodney King beating yet. It’s very easy, and I have done it myself, to dismiss hardcore rap as a bunch of noise with F-bombs. Music reflects your reality. That’s what the group would say in response to criticism of their content. The truth is I am possibly THE most Caucasian man in the world, and I have no idea what it was and is like to live under constant scrutiny and police excess because of the color of my skin. I imagine it would make me very, very angry. I have to imagine because, I can’t know, and neither can you unless you lived it.
Music, all art, is a way of communicating your reality to the world. The truth is, we didn’t like the reality that got shoved in our face with NWA. And the argument can certainly be made that art can, in turn, create reality. The East/West Coast feud, the shootings, the drugs, the excess that came with success can be blamed on the music, but to do that exclusively ignores the problems that sparked it in the first place. Is 2016 a more racially civilized place because we have an African-American President or do we just not talk about the divide any more, because we’re afraid confronting it, acknowledging that we do still have problems, somehow makes us racist? I think it’s a lot more of the latter than anyone would care to admit. Do I choose to express how I feel the way NWA did? No, and I’ll openly admit that I’ve dismissed the intelligence of people who have and do express themselves that way and Straight Outta Compton challenged that prejudice for me. Just in doing that: making you rethink your own reality, the film succeeds in accomplishing something important.
I saw the director’s cut of the film, and I wish I hadn’t because most of my criticisms of Compton as a movie have to do with it being overlong (168 minutes) and indulgent at some points. I’m sure the theatrical cut was a tighter film, and probably a better one for it. The cast is outstanding, largely unknowns except for Paul Giamatti. This is exactly the kind of film that demands a Best Ensemble Oscar, because it’s hard to separate out any of the performances, because they’re all rock solid. With the participation of the surviving members of NWA and their families (Ice Cube’s son plays his father in the film), the film feels almost like a documentary. It’s authentic, unapologetic, raw, and very powerful in parts.
I’m not going to lie, I’ll probably never watch Straight Outta Compton again, but that doesn’t make it less of a success. Any film that makes you face your preconceptions, informs you of a reality that you didn’t or chose not to acknowledge or shows you how one group from Compton, CA, changed the face of American music forever can’t be counted as anything less than a total triumph. Straight Outta Compton IS one of the best pictures of 2015, whether deemed so by the Academy or not. It may not a feel-good film, but not every film should be. Some should throw you outside your comfort zone and make you think. Bravo.