Today’s Accompaniment: Chronic by Dr. Dre (Straight Outta Compton was too obvious)
When Straight Outta Compton was released in 1988, I wouldn’t arrive in the world for another 6 years. By the time I was born, N.W.A was basically over. I tell you this because the longer I watched this film the more I came to realise that I was taking part in the creation of a myth, and I was its target.
The movie of course begins with three young people from Compton. Dr. Dre (Played by Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). There are actually more members of N.W.A but the movie doesn’t care about them so I guess neither do I. It’s probably for the best.
The film follows through the rise and fall of N.W.A and the subsequent solo careers of the people involved. The first half whips along at a breakneck speed, dedicated to the recording of the first album and the tour that followed, culminating in a show in Detroit that ends in disaster and it’s just brilliant film making. It’s interesting and thought provoking and well paced and everything in it means something. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of biopics (even if I’ve seen a lot of them), but this captured me and put me on the end of my seat.
In particular when it comes to the concert in Detroit. There is this righteous anger that burns throughout the movie and the characters. It’s about the way that the police treat them, the way they are treated by society and the way that nobody seems to be talking about it. They don’t see it on the night time news. Later on the in the film, Ice Cube calls himself a journalist, who reports on things in the hood. Nobody else is going to. You can really feel the quickly boiling frustration and anger that this album has brought to the surface among the black community. It’s just and it’s real and immediate and it all comes to head in Detroit.
This is N.W.A, one of the most controversial bands of all time, so of course one of the issues they faced was censorship. The police don’t want them to perform their song “Fuck tha Police”, obvious reasons. So when they get on stage, Cube tells them to put their middle fingers high in the sky as they perform the song they know will get them arrested. Whenever you go to a gig there’s always crowd interaction and it always feels odd and cult like to me, but this feels different. The crowd mentality and the charisma of Ice Cube amplifies their anger and when they are arrested, it explodes into a full blown riot. Refuse rains down on the police and the N.WA are thrown in the back of a van. It tastes of nothing but victory. They even hi-five with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
It’s a great moment in the film and it really feels like this is where the movie should end. Its where the themes lead to, it feels climactic. But that’s the thing with biopics: Life is a mess of information flying at you and there is a lot of story to tell here, and most of it takes place after this and after Ice Cube left the group. There’s a pressure when making biopics to include the entirety of someone’s life rather than just a snapshot. It’s not precisely like say, The Imitation Game or American Sniper last year which left big thematic points to title cards at the end of the film, but it’s similar.
After this point , the film loses a lot of its edge. The second half of the film doesn’t work as well because it lacks propulsion. It feels like it’s just a collection of important events rather than something that strings together to make a proper narrative.
Not that the second half is bad, you should definitely understand that. It’s still interesting and the characters are still rounded and well defined (and inaccurate, but I’ll get to that). Nothing that I say here should detract you from seeing it. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this film is going to be a classic.
But let’s get to the meat of things here. The idea of myths and the way that we perceive things from history. As a person who wasn’t alive when this all took place, I feel like I’m being duped. The two out of N.W.A who really made it, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, obviously, feel awfully sanitized and the lyrics that we are shown have elements that are clearly redacted. Now I like N.W.A a lot, Straight Outta Compton was a brilliant and game changing album, but it wasn’t exactly politically correct. It was rap music in the 80s. It has problems.
The same can be said of how the film treats Dr. Dre. In the film he is kind and doesn’t do anything wrong, but as we all know that’s not true. These people have problems and it feels so fake to turn away from that and it ends up doing them an injustice because it approaches art as if it isn’t multi-faceted and complex.
This is where the myth part comes in, because I feel like we’re watching the rewriting of history taking place before our eyes. With things taken out and the complexity flattened into a more convincing story. It’s a distortion we see in all the great myths of ancient times.
It’s funny because their image changes in the complete opposite way to how they began. Eazy-E is the only one of the group who actually experienced anything resembling a “gangster” life, but with the way they rapped and the characters they seemed to portray, we see that they become such in the public perception. Which is really the true version of reality here? I realise now that they were already part of a myth, it’s just that the myth has changed over time.
I think that’s fundamentally what this film is about. It’s about the image that we project to the world and the way that it can be manipulated to give hope and to give rise to movements and schools of thought, and it’s clear to me that Ice and Dre are still doing this nearly 30 years later.
Go see this movie, it’s fantastic. Just remember that reality is always going to be more complex than what can be wrapped up into a 2 hour movie. Film is inherently fictional, everything betrays objective truth, and that’s fine because it’s what it makes all of this so magical. Just don’t limit yourself to believing in only what you see on your screen.