“Straight Outta Compton:” a Reaction with Spoilers

Straight Outta Compton is a good movie. The acting is not great, but it does not distract from the narrative. The pacing of the film does not draw attention to its 150-minute length. The use of single-take tracking shots shows that F. Gary Gray is a filmmaker who has come into his own and is willing to experiment. The cinematographer is painterly in the framing and lighting. If this were a biopic about a white group with this kind of impact upon America, the film would be considered worthy of Oscar consideration. We will see if SOC gets any serious recognition. I suspect it will not. Oscar voters largely ignored Beyond the Lights, but if it had been about white characters in a different musical genre, GuGu Mbatha-Raw would have been a serious contender for Best Actress.

Straight Outta Compton is a very good film, but this is not a review. It is a reaction. I want to discuss two things: what the film gets right and, more egregious, what it gets wrong.

What It Gets Right: The Complexity of White Supremacy

White supremacy plays a central role in the film. How police officers treat the group is centered in white supremacy. The reaction of white, middle-class conservatives betrays a form of white supremacy. The FBI’s attempt to censor the group is grounded in white supremacy. As in America, white supremacy is ubiquitous in the film. However, it is the white supremacy displayed by a character that considers himself an ally to the group that fascinated me.

Paul Giamatti is convincing as Jerry Heller, the shrewd manager of N.W.A. and co-founder of Ruthless Records. A central point of conflict is the mismanagement of money by Heller and Eazy-E, played effortlessly by Jason Mitchell. In a climatic scene, after N.W.A. has broken up and Eazy-E discovers that his trusted manager took advantage of him financially, Heller says tearfully, “I always took care of you. Didn’t I always take care of you? Yes, I made sure I was taken care of first, but I always took care of you.” All he needed to do was add “boy” at the end of those sentences.

Heller saw himself as enlightened—an ally to this group of working-class black men from Compton, California. He was outraged early in the film by black suffering at the hands of the police. He appeared to genuinely believe in the talent and message of the group. He put himself and his career at risk to promote and protect them. Yet, despite all this, he still saw these black men through the lens of white supremacy.

He took advantage of the group financially. He infantilized them. And when confronted about his financial transgressions, he spoke to Eazy-E in a way reminiscent of a slave owner addressing a house n*gger. (For more, see Jeffrey St. Clair’s The Rise and Fall of Death Row Records.) Many assume that racism must be overt in order to be present. Heller shows us that racism can be expressed in a multiplicity of ways.

 

What It Gets Wrong: Misogyny

Films about historical figures are political statements. What filmmakers choose to include is just as important as what they choose to exclude. Let’s look at what SOC unnecessarily includes: scene after scene of nude black women sexually gratifying men. (Both fair and dark skinned black women are featured. Those outraged by the colorism in the casting call only succeeded in ensuring that women of all shades are objectified.) Female characters are used for sex and discarded. They are used as eye-pleasing décor in party scenes. Women wear revealing clothing for purposes that neither serve the narrative nor communicate anything distinctive about the characters they portray. The ingenuity with which words are used to degrade women is almost impressive in its profligacy. The film is misogynistic in what it includes, but it is more misogynistic in what it excludes.

There are no references to the abuse women suffered at the hands of N.W.A.—most pointedly, at the hands of Dr. Dre. There is no mention of the incident involving Dr. Dre and Dee Barnes when, in 1991, she reported that he “began slamming her face and the right side of her body repeatedly against a wall near the stairway” and “grabbed her from behind by the hair and proceeded to punch her in the back of the head” at a party. Nor does the film show the abuse suffered by his ex-fiancé, the singer Michel’le. She reported in an interview that, “I had five black eyes; I have a cracked rib; I have scars that are just amazing.” Michel’le is barely mentioned, and when she is, it is only as an artist on Death Row Records. Dr. Dre is portrayed as a forward thinking musical genius. There is no mention of his abusive behavior. For him, the film borders on hagiography, and that is simply irresponsible.

As I’ve said before, I have a great deal of affection for N.W.A. Many do. But our love for musical artists should not blind us to their misdeeds. This is a good film. It is well made and insightful about the complexity surrounding expressions of white supremacy. However, it ignores the voices of black women suffering just outside the frame of the film, and that I cannot excuse.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.