“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
That’s the first line of the first track of N.W.A.’s debut album, from which your screenplay takes its name, and it is undeniably a call to arms. Whatever opinions you might have about the album – that it’s a true-to-life document of the sociocultural climate of inner-city Los Angeles in the 1980s, an artistic feat that revolutionized modern pop music, or a glorification of misogyny and violence – one thing is for certain: it’s fuelled by the complicated, brutal, erosive real-life experiences of its creators. It’s fuelled by street knowledge.
So, now that I’ve had a bit of time to think deeply about the movie Straight Outta Compton, I am left wondering how a story that was inspired by such righteous anger and revealed such unpleasant truths could be so shallow, banal, and untruthful.
It’s a film fuelled by the opposite of street knowledge. What’s missing, ultimately, from your screenplay, is a sense of danger, of fearlessness, of purpose—the same desire to incite thought and feeling that every track on the album smolders with. Instead, Straight Outta Compton is the kind of middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe, milquetoast pop-culture product that N.W.A. built their reputation by undermining. Which is more than just ironic. It’s tragic. Your film, in attempting to build a monument to the legacy of N.W.A., has compromised it instead.
I’ll be honest. I left the theater after seeing Straight Outta Compton feeling rather upbeat. The people I’d gone with seemed to have enjoyed it, too. How could we not? It’s a feel-good music biopic that luxuriates in all the satisfying tropes of the genre: artist(s) come from disadvantageous circumstances, overcome adversity, prove naysayers wrong, overindulge in fame and success, learn lessons, overcome adversity once again, cement legacy, The End.
Like eating fast food, there is a certain base-level caloric satisfaction one receives from such stuff. The film is competently made. The performances are decent. It’s well-shot. But the story of one of the most important, contentious music groups of recent history deserves more than mere competence. Having had time to contemplate, I feel this strange sense of anger towards this film. I’m angry that it tricked me into thinking it had fulfilled its raison d’etre – to tell the true story of how N.W.A. changed the world by bringing street knowledge to the mainstream – when in fact it tells the story of how the mainstream has learned nothing from it.
N.W.A.’s success was about more than just talent, or the luck of being in the right place at the right time. It was about hard work. It was about trying and failing and trying again; doing the hard thing instead of the easy thing. But in telling their story, you did the easy thing. You wrote a by-the-numbers screenplay that is, as both historical document and artistic expression, a compromise. It’s built upon a blueprint that offers ample opportunity for great risks to be taken (and great rewards to be reaped), but at each and every one of these opportunities your screenplay plays it safe. No, it’s more than just playing it safe. It obscures the truth in order to hide the story’s sharpest edges. It uncomplicates racial and cultural dynamics with a simplistic (almost propagandic) thematic focus.
But how can any of this be your fault? Sure, you wrote the screenplay. But you clearly weren’t writing for the audience. You were writing for the producers of the film, and there is no room to misinterpret your intentions: to deify them.
Those producers? Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. They have become the powerbrokers that they once rebelled against. Willing to protect their reputations (aka. their business interests) at any cost...
I feel like I need to think this through a little further.
Why am I so angry? Why does this offend me so much? Aren’t glossy, hollow, aggrandizing biopics as much a Hollywood tradition as bible epics and romantic comedies and superhero franchises? Why shouldn’t African American cultural icons receive the same varnished, agitprop treatment that white figures like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Steve Jobs have? In a year when the #OscarSoWhite movement has garnered more attention than any of the nominees, what does it mean that I’m all twisted up about the exaltation (however cloying) of this generation’s black leaders and the institutions they’ve created? Why did the inaccuracies and generalities of Straight Outta Compton provoke more ire in me than films like The Social Network or Walk The Line? Because it wasn’t dark enough, wasn’t gritty enough? And why on earth, of all the people to whom I could have written this outraged letter, did I choose the white lady who wrote one of the earliest drafts of the screenplay?
Maybe I’m taking the easy road, too?
Maybe my reaction to this movie is proof of the very need for movies like this. Perhaps, to be meaningful, to have real social impact, African Americans films don’t have to categorically be dark, gritty, brutal, ruthless, or fuelled by my white-guy’s detached academic notions of what street knowledge is. Maybe Straight Outta Compton is actually the story of how street knowledge made its way into the corridors of power. Making this kind of generic, revisionist-history biopic is, itself, an act of revolution akin to the album that inspired it.
Clearly you weren’t writing this film for the audience. Or even for posterity. You were writing it for the producers of the film, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. And there is no room to misinterpret your intentions: to deify them.
Dre and Cube certainly aren’t in Compton anymore. They have become the powerbrokers that they once rebelled against. They’re part of the establishment, they’ve joined the system. They have the political and financial influence to produce films about themselves.
That’s not a bad thing—even if it produces bad movies like this.