Review: “Straight Outta Compton”

Much of the gangsta rap music of N.W.A is a raw explosion of pure id: five men from L.A. manifesting their crude vigilante fantasies—stoked no doubt by institutional racism and socioeconomic stigma—into pulsing beats and street-smart poetry. This puts the rap super-group firmly in a tradition begun two generations prior by Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son sees an uneducated young Black man, Bigger Thomas, accidentally kill a white woman, Mary Dalton, in a moment of race-induced panic. He could try to defend himself, as if that would’ve helped him in the time and place (late-‘30s Chicago), but he doesn’t. Instead, he covers up his deed, frames Mary’s disappearance on another, flees when the ruse is up, and—in the novel’s most controversial moment—slaughters his Black girlfriend, Bessie, when she becomes a burden. In taking responsibility for Mary’s death, he proceeds to flesh out the paranoid white-racist fear of the Black man retaliating against his oppression in ways increasingly cunning and malevolent—and indeed, in these circumstances, that is what Bigger feels he must do to survive. Thus, through Bigger, Wright gave American literature its most defining expression of id. To act violently is an extreme measure, but to think violently—nay, to envision oneself committing violence—is, I imagine, a natural human tendency, to which we may not often admit. The power of works of art like Native Son and N.W.A’s music lies not just in how they bluntly identify our darkest temptations. More so, it lies in how they epitomize art as an act by which we may channel our id in a productive, nonviolent way.

“How is such music productive?” one might ask. “Wouldn’t it give Blacks a bad image by confirming those white-racist fears you mention—by giving those racists, hand over fist, the means by which they justify their bigotry?” It would not be appropriate to say so. Recall Roger Ebert’s famous statement regarding Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow: “Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers: ‘How could you do this to “your people”?’” No artist should be obligated to please or satisfy everyone, especially not at the expense of accuracy. Ensuring racial equality and respect for people of color means allowing them to depict themselves however they want, in ways beyond such narrow parameters as race, sex, class, etc. It means not pooh-poohing them into pandering to the moderate sensibility of perceiving everything in a positive, cheerily optimistic light, and it means not cramming characters of color into stock archetypes that are built to prove that people of color are people after all, and may even be good people at that—as if anyone ever needed such proof. (Whoever does is truly pathetic.) Bigots, in the meantime, will seek any excuse to vindicate their wrongheaded beliefs—and anything, much less any work of art, no matter how well intentioned, can be manipulated and distorted to achieve those horrific ends. Look at how much catastrophe has been blamed on the Bible. Dare I add, it would be even more unconscionable to call N.W.A’s music evidence of “racist self-hatred.” Those men were not ashamed to be Black, nor ashamed to be gangsta rappers if not gangstas, much less did they let the culture they grew up in sucker them into being so ashamed. I’m convinced they were proud of who they were.

These thoughts and more went through my mind as I was watching Straight Outta Compton, which covers the decade (1986-95) in which N.W.A formed, rose, splintered into solo projects, bickered, made up, and faced challenge and tragedy. I’m not into rap—my preferred music genres are classical, prog and alt rock, and electronica—but Compton got me interested in it, and I feel it serves as a strong primer for novices coming in with no knowledge of the subject. The film opens with tight introductions to the group’s three critical members, in their hardscrabble days before fame. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is seen trying to pull off a drug deal. When his ego gets in the way, an LAPD ambush gives him time to escape—the smiley-face on the police tank’s battering ram is the first of the film’s many startling quotidian touches. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, a disc jockey, gets the most hackneyed overture. Dousing himself in beats in his bedroom, he gets a wake-up call when his mother scolds him for missing a job interview and lectures him on how he needs to swallow his pride and forgo music if he wants to make a living. That got me worried. That worry was dispelled, thankfully, in the scene after when O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, writing rhymes in a marble journal, witnesses a Crenshaw Mafiosi hold up a school bus to give his naïve peers a taste of the gangsta life they so idolize, yet know next to nothing about. This scene, I take it, will come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the time and place. It is essentially a hostage situation, and it makes clear that what these young men proceed to rap about, they have direct experience with.

No need to rehash the history; the film outlines it very well. The three coalesce with Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, pop out their first single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” and get the attention of manager Jerry Heller. It’s a new breed of music, and it’s not for everyone, but Heller sees it stir crowds and recognizes its innovation, and that to him means money. The film does not sugarcoat the controversy of the lyrics; the charges of misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violence against police, etc., are not invalid. (What the film leaves out about the more immediate ways in which the men objectified women in real life, we can assume.) It may thus strike more P.C. viewers as ironic that such content did not diminish N.W.A’s popularity among concertgoers, in particular among women. But it is not ironic at all because N.W.A’s fans understood what they were about: brutal honesty, releasing stress, fully taking advantage of the First Amendment. They didn’t have to present themselves as likable or agreeable because sometimes, they just weren’t. They wanted to fight urban injustice and give a voice to the oppressed, and often, that involved embracing their egos and removing their filters. Their music was never really meant for the privileged, nor for the sensitive, and that makes it stronger; there were no audience expectations to indulge. Why does the FBI send them a gag order? Why do Detroit police try to ban them from performing “Fuck tha Police”—which one cop terms “F. the Police”—in concert? These bodies accuse the group of trying to incite riots, but they know as well as their fans do that they’re not doing that at all; they rap, in part, as an alternative to riot, as an escape from the violence of Compton. What the FBI and the police are concerned about, I believe, is that these men are challenging their power, which they reassert through censorship. N.W.A knows this, and exploits it ingeniously.

There’s plenty of history to cover in these two and a half hours—the murder of Dre’s brother, Heller’s financial antics, Cube’s early departure and the ensuing dissing match, the Rodney King fiasco, Dre’s move to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, Knight’s thuggish antics, Dre’s mentoring of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, Eazy-E’s ugly fate, etc. The film has rightly been accused of rushing and cramming, and of playing with facts and sidelining women. (Dre and Cube were producers—a curious conflict of interest, to some.) The way I see it, its breadth and ambition give it the feel of an epic rap anthology, complete with inserts, homages, name-dropping, masculinity to a fault, political bravado, egotistical one-upmanship, and a paradoxical notion of fragmented vignettes linked together to create a fluid, logical arc. This is not just appropriate. Even if unintended, it is a novel approach to the cinematic form—a depiction of rap history using the structures of rap, fraught with commentary on the effect of media on history and our daily lives. Not to mention, the performances are terrific. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. pulls no punches playing his father, and his casting is far from nepotism. Witness the scene in which he trashes the Priority Records office with a baseball bat over an advance dispute, and the later moments when he is softened by fame, fatherhood and a film career. (An early mentor of his was F. Gary Gray, a clever choice to direct this film.) Corey Hawkins, as Dre, captures a similarly wide transition from naïveté to moral confrontation, culminating in a climactic choice to abandon Death Row for good. Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. make strong impressions as Ren and Yella despite limited screen time; Paul Giamatti perfectly negotiates Heller’s esteem for N.W.A’s music with his insidious money grubbing; stuntman R. Marcos Taylor, as Knight, switches from tenderness to brute menace on a dime. Best in show is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the baitiest role, played with boyish simplicity and not a shred of sentiment.

Compton made me wonder: have we really come that far? Even with Obama, has much changed at all? The scenes of racial profiling—of cops making impulsive decisions based on dumb, lazy associations between race and predilection for crime—feel fresh, and they’re not without a contemporary, if avant la lettre, veneer of classism. (Exhibit A: the Black cop who disagrees with Heller on whether rap is art.) Speaking as a white man who can admit he has made some stupid comments about race in his lifetime and who has thus written this review with care—if we want to make America as free and equal as it aims to be, we all have to contribute to stop these systemic issues. Slogans and soundbytes have always struck me as unreliably incomplete. In that sense, I do not feel it is enough to say that Black Lives Matter. What we must say is: Black Identities Matter. People of color have the right not just to live and live in peace, but to thrive, to enjoy life, to fulfill their goals, to speak loud, to be listened to, heard and understood. In art and narrative, we have a duty to give them representation and depict them faithfully. American cinema today is neglecting that duty. Straight Outta Compton is a move in the right direction in that regard, and it is much more than that: flaws and all, it is a bracing, innovative portrait of a quantum shift in music history, juggling searing character studies and provocative moral dilemmas. The scenes and songs hit hard, and weeks after watching this film, they are still looping in my head.

Grade: A

In memory of Sandra Bland, Raynette Turner, Alison Parker, Adam Ward, and all others.

Review: “Straight Outta Compton”

Great Film: “Heat”, A Tragedy of the Masculine

With this essay, I kick off what I’m planning out as a series of reviews of what I consider Great Films. In the tradition of the late great film journalist Roger Ebert, I’m putting together my own canon of films that have contributed significantly to my identity as a film buff, an artist, and a person in general. A designation as a Great Film indicates an A+ grade, which supersedes any and all prior assessments.

The Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger once characterized the condition that he called “autistic psychopathy”—and that we today name in his honor—as “the extreme end of masculinity.” I imagine that this is why—despite my growing concern for the representation of women in cinema—I still have an affinity for particularly masculine films, which take, as their primary theme, what it means to be a man, and the various pitfalls of testosterone: silence, isolation, obsession, temper. My awareness of these pitfalls is twofold, as I have experienced heightened forms of all of them; I register them as a man, and as an Aspergerian. There’s been discussion in my family of the Films Every Guy Loves: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Shawshank Redemption, The Professional, Scarface, Chinatown, Citizen Kane and various films by Leone and Scorsese come up often, and to that list, I would add Snatch, Training Day, Oldboy (the original), Seven Samurai and, of course, Heat. I am convinced, in fact, that Heat is the best on the list, in its encapsulation of who men are, and not least in how they contrast with women. I am tempted to go out on a limb and call Heat a sort-of Asperger’s 101 lecture, but that would be pushing it. For now, I will call it my go-to film for probing the essential extremities of masculinity, and the tragedy of them.

I’ve just made some weighty claims—I’m nothing if not a contrarian and a devil’s advocate—so let me outline a distinction I like to make between a “perfect film” and a “masterpiece.” The two are not interchangeable. I can recognize The Godfather, for instance, as a perfect film, in that the construction of its narrative strikes a kind-of Nash equilibrium that would be ruined if any part of it were altered or rearranged. But I cannot recognize it as a masterpiece, in that on every viewing, it appears to me as too callous and hubristic, too self-aware and self-important, even too simple for its own good. Similar goes for Citizen Kane, which to this day demands immense credit for its formal innovations, but which nonetheless has its dated, awkward beats, such as Kane’s rushed-over first marriage and the outrageous conceit of the frame story. (There’s no way she could’ve heard him whisper “Rosebud.”) I thus understand why many call them the Greatest Films Ever Made, but I cannot join in that consensus because those films do not connect with me on a personal level as deeply as Harold and Maude and Persona do. Heat is not a perfect film; it has its flaws, and I will get into them. But it is a masterpiece because of the magnitude of what it accomplishes in terms of theme, story, character and artistry.

Heat, directed by Michael Mann (whose second-best is nowhere close to this), is a cops-and-robbers epic, but is it good versus evil? Al Pacino, who plays LAPD R.H. detective Vincent Hanna, and Robert De Niro, who plays main thief Neil McCauley (a real-life figure), share first billing and are clearly meant to be co-protagonists. Is there more focus on Hanna? Are we meant to root for Hanna? Perhaps, but I’m on my fourth viewing and the focus seems to be more on Neil and his crew. Of the police characters, only Hanna is given substance, as well as a crucial love interest, Justine (Diane Venora). Most of the rest of this vast ensemble is on the other side of the law. What’s more, Neil is of the classic antihero stock. Most if not all of cinema’s great antiheroes live by a personal code, and Neil’s is my favorite: “You want to be making moves on the street?” he quotes an old cellmate. “Have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds if you spot the heat around the corner.” The film critic David Thomson has praised De Niro for playing Vito Corleone with “Asperger’s-like distance,” and Neil’s social asceticism is too emblematic of that to be called merely masculine. Friendships to him are unstable, volatile, guilt-inducing, too vulnerable; Neil may be a villain, yet I feel like I know him.

Masculine films are often criticized for falling into the trap of designing their female roles to serve the central male-dominated stories. Most of the women of Heat do exist as love interests, but they are not without their own senses of agency, self-interest and self-preservation. Witness how Justine, Hanna’s third wife, puts up with her first husband’s total absence and the emotional toll it takes on her daughter, Lauren (a young Natalie Portman), and how calm yet brutal she is in the way she counteracts Neil’s frequent absence, in the film’s most blackly comic scene (“You do not get to watch my fucking television set!”). Also witness how Charlene (Ashley Judd), late in the film after shit has hit the fan, uses her wits to maneuver herself, her infant son and her husband—Neil’s henchman Chris (Val Kilmer)—just barely out of the LAPD’s grasp. If both women are doomed to see their lives through the prisms of the men they marry and fuck, then at least they have the knowledge and chutzpah to work with and against those men to their advantage. Can we agree, too, that men often construct their lives around the women in them? Recall the bartender in The Shining and his toast to women: “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Un-P.C., yes, but here, it’s apt. Hanna is a workaholic, forced by duty to alienate wife and stepdaughter, yet he’s still trying to make at least one marriage work. Chris lives to pull off heists and gamble all his earnings away, at the expense of a family he loves to death. They need the very women that they desert and betray the most. They are the quintessential male parasites.

Neil understands that he’d be the same if he was involved with a woman, and that’s part of the reason for his code. He exists to steal, whether he targets bearer bonds in an armored truck, jewelry in a shipping container or cash in a bank vault. He’s a criminal; he doesn’t really trust anyone, much less a woman, to trust him. Yet, not even he can escape the lure of romance. Not surprisingly for such an XY film, Heat is not always secure in how it portrays its women, who are at times given clunky dialogue. Much of what Justine says would work okay as poetry but comes off as pedantry when spoken: “You don’t live with me,” she tells Hanna. “You live among the remains of dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey.” Charlene, in the meantime, is often used as a vessel for clumsy exposition. “You’re a child growing older,” she gripes to Chris. “We’re not making forward progress like real grown-up adults living our lives because I married a gambling junkie.” (Not that Venora’s and Judd’s deliveries hurt.) It is thus all the more intriguing that Neil’s woman, a bookstore clerk named Eady (Amy Brenneman), is written without flaw. Casual, blunt but rather cool, appropriately ephemeral, she meets Neil by accident and initiates the conversation, and Neil reciprocates out of courtesy, if not out of pity. He has to; hell, it’s what I would’ve done. Ubiquitous as it is, love is too demanding a subplot for cinema; not even the three hours of Heat are enough to encompass the development of a romance. Amidst its glimpses into marriages striving and fracturing, Heat gives us one genuine love story in Neil and Eady, and it gets away with it because it is clear that those two are just dating, mutually interested but taking their time—and that’s plenty risky for Neil.

The care and precision with which Neil and Eady are created and linked is further evidence that Mann’s script identifies more with Neil as an antihero than with Hanna as a hero. Yet, theirs are not the only strong characterizations. Heat earns its running time in spades not least because small roles that lesser filmmakers would have written as lazy ciphers are fleshed out, given dimensions and, when necessary, their own love interests. The film here transcends the crime drama to emerge as a panorama of L.A. criminals, in various stages of life, falling deeper into their trade and dealing with the consequences. Donald Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), an ex-con out on parole and trapped in a fast food joint, hints the audience to what could be in store for Neil and company if they do time in prison and try to redeem themselves afterwards with a legitimate job. It’s not much; the appeal of thievery is the access to fast cash and the potential for a life that’s better than Breedan’s. He has a woman to encourage him to stay straight, but the powerlessness of his workplace gets to him in the end, and a chance reunion with fellow Folsom vet Neil is all it takes to lure him back into crime and initiate his downfall. Trejo (Danny Trejo), Neil’s driver, is at the center of one of the film’s most raw, agonizing moments; stuck to the floor of his house by his own congealed blood, he learns that his wife is lying murdered (likely raped, too) in the next room and decides right away to throw in the towel on life. The film’s most vile presence, Waingro (Kevin Gage), is depicted as a trigger-happy opportunist and a serial murderer of underage prostitutes—a misogynist in the worst sense. Critically, he operates as an antagonist not to Hanna but to Neil; his actions greatly assist Hanna’s investigation and are the key impetus of Neil’s tragedy.

I’ve spent so much time and words focused on gender that I’ve neglected the other pair of codependent opposites bandied about in this film: cops and robbers. One of the great strengths of Heat is its purity, its functionality. The criminals gather in L.A. They make some noise, drop some bodies. They get Hanna on their trail, and from there on out, it’s cat-and-mouse. The scope is broad and complex, but the story itself is primitive. The characters’ motivations, their raisons d’être, do not have—nor do they need—much more depth than the film reels and screens manifesting their story in pixels. The famous scene, with Pacino and De Niro having coffee, is intriguing in this regard. The more I think about it, the more this scene strikes me as a curious anomaly, not unlike Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in that it doesn’t really advance the plot but rather provides a poetic interlude in which actors can show off. What’s Hanna trying to do during the scene? Get inside Neil’s head? Talk him out of risking lives in his exploits? Give him fair warning? Grandstand in front of him?

Let’s face it: the scene is a conceit, one expressly designed to coddle the Godfather fanboys who sat through the film to see Pacino and De Niro duke it out. It’s an actors’ pas de deux, an upstaging match not unlike what comedians do all the time. Watch closely, and here and there, you’ll catch a glint in the eye and a small smile cracking when Pacino and De Niro can’t help but slightly break character and sit in awe at the fact that such an encounter is at last taking place. Yet, the film gets away with this, too, because it displays a refreshing honesty about how banal these archetypes are, and how tragic the people who follow them have become. There’s no glamor here, just testosterone. I mean, just listen to this dialogue. Neil: “I do what I do best. I take scores. You do what you do best: try to stop guys like me.” Hanna, reiterating the sentiment: “You know, we’re sitting here like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do.” And this exchange: Hanna: “I don’t know how to do anything else.” Neil: “Neither do I.” Hanna: “I don’t want to, either.” Neil: “Neither do I.” The Pinteresque economy of this is indelible. It’s almost as if Mann is thumbing his nose at the audience, trying to make them rethink the worth of seeing these two actors in the same scene for the sake of it while the ensemble also boasts Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, William Fichtner, Hank Azaria, etc., etc.

I wrote my Haverford senior thesis on the author John Dos Passos and in part on how his masterpiece, the U.S.A. trilogy, operates as a Cubist text, sacrificing depth to study and mimic the interplay of textual and filmic surfaces. (Props to my old classmate Charles Birkel for helping me in this regard.) Heat is a similar text. Thomson writes, in a qualified review, “Heat is a skin—taut, alert, buffed—like the look of a great athlete or a new car.” And what a skin it is. The cinematography of Dante Spinotti here is beyond criticism. Every shot in this film—every single arrangement of strobe light and night sky, interior shape and exterior expanse, minimal emotion and acute stoicism—ought to be a painting in a major museum. Simple, mundane details stick out to me on every viewing: the blue ribbon that slinks back to the ground after the armored truck is knocked over and careens through the car lot; the glass of water in the napkin that Neil leaves Eady after their first night together; the brutal cut from Waingro pulling a girl’s hair to him snapping a cap off a beer; Hanna’s ally Drucker (Mykelti Williamson) staring into space for a solid second after issuing a command to an uncooperative informant; Neil sneaking up and balancing on the edge of the backyard pool of a man he is about to murder. The film also has the distinction of having candidates for the best opening shot and the best closing shot in all of cinema.

The editing does justice to the photography. Observe the central bank robbery set piece—and the thuggish, depraved, angering automatic-weapons shootout that follows it. It opens with a prelude of Charlene and Eady starting their average days while their men go off to break the law and terrorize L.A. After the sequence, two women watch the news break, on TV, of the massacre in which both of their men were slaughtered. This double juxtaposition is a haunting stroke of genius. Lastly, the music of Elliot Goldenthal—a blend of ethereal orchestrations and unctuous electronic rumbles—makes a perfect marriage with Spinotti’s imagery. This is a quiet film (at least, when guns aren’t going off) that demands to be listened to loud, to relish every iota and nuance of sound that comes coursing through Mann’s L.A. landscape.

I don’t agree with Thomson’s assessment that the film aims to promote or even idealize Neil’s code, nor that it views “cops and thieves [as] interchangeable.” There are parallels between the two, and there are moments—as in real life—when the binary blurs; case in point, the classic scene when Neil gets to do reconnaissance on Hanna’s team, just like Hanna did surveillance on him. But ultimately, the two are distinct. Hanna is pure Pacino: pure heat, always coked up, lurking, popping up in roads, from behind doorways and around corners, unhinged yet calculated. He’s an expert cop, with a superlative eye for detail, but he’s even more a force of nature. Neil, in De Niro’s hands, is the more distinguished, less typecast presence: youngish and brazen, sophisticated, with gristle growing on him everyday, aware he should quit while he’s ahead. He’s just as intelligent as Hanna (the only detail he really fails to account for is Waingro), and it’s part and parcel of his identity to spend his whole life dodging the likes of him. Though cat and mouse sometimes see how the other half lives, the food chain remains the same.

In its study of cops and criminals, Heat is superficial and intends to be so, but it is a deep film in terms of gender—in how it dissects the grace, wisdom and constant marginalization of the feminine, and the innate Aspergerian essence of the masculine—and the entire ensemble is absent of any trace of stock character. Even Waingro’s victim is given a grieving family to expand her profile. Everyone present is human, even when they are mired in über-masculine archetypes that lead to their destruction. As for Neil’s code, I think the film condemns it. Every character arc here ends in tragedy, but the worst one, in my opinion, arrives in Neil and Eady’s final moment, in which the code is called into play. That moment is the purest Aspergerian tragedy I’ve ever seen in film, and I’m not going out on a limb in saying that.

In memory of B.B. King, whose song “The Thrill is Gone” plays in this film, and the afore-credited John Nash and his wife, Alicia.

Great Film: “Heat”, A Tragedy of the Masculine