There is a lot to respect about the new film “Straight Outta Compton,” which presents the official view of the band’s history from its early days of three teens in Compton trying to become ghetto superstars to the death of Easy-E due to AIDS, derailing the attempt of the principals of the group to rejoin after years of bitter recriminations over money and respect. The acting is strong, and it is clear that the widow of Easy-E as well as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre all wanted the story of the group’s desire to reconcile in the aftermath of bitter breakups and recriminations and other relationship drama to be clear, as that is what the last act of the film depends on to provide its melancholy sense of closure. Without Easy-E, there was no NWA, because the band was about the five brothers, and there was no desire to continue without one of their camp. The movie itself, moreover, seems to be a very clear move for the band to demonstrate its massive influence, as a way of demonstrating their worthiness for a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, given the footage of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and the importance of Tupac in the biopic.
There is a surprising connection between the recent furor over the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and this particular movie. Part of the question that one can have about whether “black lives matter” is whether those people who are most concerned with matters of racial injustice, real or perceived, are equally horrified by other kinds of injustice. This movie would strongly suggest otherwise, both in terms of what it includes and what it omits. Let us first examine what is included. For one, the movie itself relegates DJ Yella and MC to backup roles, letting them serve as the Lance Basses of NWA (if I may be pardoned an ‘N Sync reference here), to the clear “star players” of the core trio. For another, this film includes a lot of women being objectified. I must admit that I am quite fond of attractive women, and there are a lot of attractive women here, but even though both Easy-E and Ice Cube are portrayed as having long-term women, and the problems of Dr. Dre with his baby mama lead to one of the more memorable scenes of this movie in dealing with police are also given full credit. That said, although there are a few admirable women portrayed here, including Ice-T’s wife Kim and Easy-E’s widow (who was, it should be noted, one of the executive producers of the film), Dr. Dre’s mother, and the single mother that Dr. Dre asks to move in with him, but in general, there are a lot of women here being shown as glorified sex toys, in various states of undress and being treated as groupies. This message is heard in NWA’s music, including songs like “Suck My D***,” and it is shown on-screen, which only reinforces the viewpoint that rappers have of women as being the fruits of success, even though the movie makes no attempt to honor the important women of the group in any sustained way. This is a film about men and for men, and the women are there to dance around topless around swimming pools and to provide sexual release, and to bear children out of wedlock.
What the movie omits is equally significant, and telling. For one, the movie omits any reference whatsoever to founding NWA member Arabian Prince. He is never mentioned, and never shown, despite being in the group for years. Clearly there must have been a lot of bad blood there for him to be written out of the band’s history entirely, when the group even included the embarrassing early music career of Dr. Dre. Additionally, while the movie goes out of its way to provide a denial of anti-Semitism on the part of NWA, the film entirely denies the violence the members of NWA advocated against the Korean community in songs like “Black Korea” even though the film pointedly looks at police brutality several times in relationship to the Rodney King case. In this film, the blacks are portrayed often as the victims of police brutality, and though the film looks at lots of weapon possession and brandishing among blacks, it does not examine black on black violence as grimly, with the exception of the malicious portrayal of Suge Knight. The film omits in any way the band’s responsibility for promoting violence against other vulnerable minorities, which makes them less sympathetic and less honorable and less universal in their appeal. The fact that this record of promoting black-on-Asian violence was entirely omitted and no attempt at justification was made suggests that the group (Ice Cube in particular) felt guilty about it but also did not wish to apologize for it, similar to the fact that the film also omits reference to the members’ history of abuse against women, another serious wrong of the people portrayed in the film being swept under the rug.
These are real flaws, and serious ones, and ones worthy of being discussed. Sometimes wrongs demand an apology, and although the members of this group show a willingness to apologize to each other, that willingness does not appear to spread very widely. There is no question that this film portrays the members of NWA as journalists of their own communities, as canaries in the coal mine examining the brokenness of their families and communities, of the arbitrary hostility that they felt from police, and in their desires for money, power, and sexual gratification with females. The film is in many ways honest, and if it does not tell the whole truth, even where it is within its power to do so, it reminds us that people do not have to be perfect to be worthy of dignity and honor, and that people who have been wronged can still wrong others. This is a reminder that we need to keep in mind, because it is all too easy for us to paint ourselves as victims and survivors and truthtellers and to forget that sometimes we have to speak the truths about ourselves, and not just the ugly truths that others do not want to hear. For by the same standard we judge, we also will be judged.