Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

I haven't seen "Straight Outta Compton" yet, but there have been plenty of good articles about the film so far, and a fair number of strong criticisms about what got left out or glossed over.  Most notably, incidents involving women have been left out of the story completely, such as Dr. Dre's assault of Dee Barnes, and JJ Fad legitimizing Ruthless Records and giving them the credibility to release NWA records.  JJ Fad's "Supersonic" (the song and album) was legitimately huge, the album went gold, the group earned a Grammy nomination, their singles ruled the clubs, and I honestly have no idea how this kind of thing gets left out of the movie. 

Most Hollywood biopics get scorched by critics over what they leave out, or the liberties they take with the truth.  I usually accept this as part of the challenge of trying to bring a complicated subject to the big screen, and am understanding of the fact that not every great story necessarily makes for a great movie (without some embellishment or added scenes that likely never took place).  Again, I haven't yet seen the movie, but the always excellent Wesley Morris touches on many of the movie's weaknesses for Grantland.  The final paragraph stings, paraphrasing, the movie avoids showing the realities of the lives of the people it claims to be accurately portraying in favour of accentuating how rich and famous they all got.  That could apply to just about any Hollywood biopic.  The only thing that Hollywood likes more than movies about people who are success stories are movies about people who overcame serious obstacles to become success stories.  Anything that interferes with the telling of that basic narrative gets left out.  Even the biopics that end on a tragic note make sure to redeem their subjects by emphasizing that their legacy lived on far longer than they did, in which case anything that detracts from their ordeals is also quietly left out (I'm looking at you, "The Imitation Game"). 

NWA didn't invent "black reality", for instance, Public Enemy were superstars long before "Straight Outta Compton" and famously described their music as "black CNN".  The critical respect they garnered at the time was widespread even among white critics.  Hip hop already knew how to portray the reality of the streets in a way that would sell records, but NWA were selling something a bit different.  As Morris writes, "NWA didn't invent 'scary' as the black-male trope.  They perfected it".  That reality includes the misogyny and other stuff that seems to have been dropped from the movie.  A movie about black kids who grew up in a dangerous neighbourhood and became rich is a salable concept.  A movie about rappers who beat up women and made money off their reputation as such is not. 

Finally, there's a clear interest on the part of any filmaker to put on rose coloured glasses when taking on a project like this.  Movies like these get made to honour their subjects, not to show them up by dragging old skeletons out of the closet.  It should also be said that Dr. Dre is a billionaire who is one of the most powerful people in the music industry, and counts several other powerful heavyweights among his best friends and business partners.  Did we really expect anyone involved in this picture (who still plans on being involved in the music industry in any way) to insist on telling the whole truth? 

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