A few weeks ago I was talking with our resident Batman, Adam, about a completely unrelated topic and the following idea came about: Film is manipulation.
It’s such a simple concept, but it’s true. Film is all a show, literally. You go to work, endure the banality of your co-workers and the crushing sound of career building, come home, and spend your cold, hard 1’s and 0’s by way of Visa or Rushcard, to sit in a large room in the dark and be told a big-ass lie.
Film is a lie. A fantasy. A story we seek to be told in order to navigate our daily lives.
Within this context, it’s safe to say that when folks decide to make films, they want to make a good lie that you might believe. When the special sauce hits though, great films become big lies that you want other people to believe.
When we think about films as lies we allow in society, there’s no greater lie than the biopic. While some may be (mostly) true to the complex realities of life, most are saccharine, broad-stroke talkies that go for the dramatic jugular with a strigoi-like appendage. Especially when the subjects of the biopic are involved. Ray was credited with being mostly right. But then you have more complicated lies that appear petty, like The Social Network or The Theory of Everything.
Enter Straight Outta Compton.
N.W.A. is infamous. N.W.A. is a cultural artifact. N.W.A. is black history. N.W.A. is American history.
N.W.A. is not an after-school special, no matter how much Eazy-E likes after-school specials.
In a lot less words: N.W.A. is complicated. SOC is not.
As much as SOC wraps itself in its own overtures, it just as heavily (see: conveniently) skips past the darker corners of a group whose impact was far from all positive. In its mission to present a timely narrative, SOC demands your loyalty while also confining your scope. if you didn’t know your history (or use the Google) you’d think these young men just fought adversity and gave an entirely new voice to a generation and whatnot.
This is a lie of omission.
Disclaimer here: I understand film is finite. I understand the editing process. Some shit can’t make it to theaters. But somewhere deep in me doesn’t want to give this film that excuse.
Because there’s literally a moment where women, who are intimately involved with Eazy, Dre, and Cube, simply fucking appear. And it’s the weirdest shit ever. Especially for a film that’s so well done.
Which brings me to my second disclaimer: SOC is an engaging, thought-out, and well-made piece of cinema. Looking at it purely as a film, SOC works because it very clearly hits its beats: inspiration, engaging characters, brotherhood, police brutality, racial tension, and a cultural revolution in hip-hop (or de-evolution, depending on who you’re talking to.) What’s more, the film has all the action/drama sensibility that director F. Gary Gray brings to the table.
The opening scene could’ve easily been the intro to an “urban” action film (a la Waist Deep. Remember that movie? No? Good). This is a good thing in a way; Gray clearly hasn’t lost the ability his ability to make films that stick in your mind, like Set It Off, The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen (for the premise alone), and, most famously, Friday. SOC is a reunion as much as it’s a historical feat.
Amidst their trials and tribulations musically, N.W.A. was also heavily embroiled in a shit scene: police were readily handing out harassment and ass-beatings, and the Rodney King debacle was in full swing. The film makes no bones about pulling this particular narrative in multiple times. As to the verity of the specific events, the feeling is that the presented instances produced N.W.A.’s incredible indomitability versus the police state at the time; especially via “Fuck Tha Police.” Gray’s fingerprint can again be felt especially when the riots happen. In a series of montages not unlike some Michael Bay sequences, Gray pokes at your heart with evocative images of LA burning and brown folk uniting in a welled up rage. The morality of it is grey, but biased enough that you feel you know why this was needed, if only as a release.
Remember when I was talking about manipulation earlier? Yes? Good.
The issue with this film anchoring itself in this time, this period, is that it’s manipulative. And not just the nice filmy manipulation we talked about earlier. It’s manipulative because the film in no way accesses the deeper narratives at play in that time. Instead, SOC employs a particular set of narrative plays that rotate around the crew; black men vs the man, young black men vs authority, freedom of black male speech vs the government, black men with vision vs black men with different visions, black men vs white men, black men vs other black men. Given the current (cyclical) climate of America, all these things will obviously hit home for many of us (see: black folk).
See the pattern in those narrative plays?
In 95% of SOC, every dramatic, heartfelt and profound situation is a world of men.
And you know, on face value. That’s fine. I understand. This is a film for, and by, N.W.A. So I won’t get it twisted.
The problem is that in the final act, the film most explicitly reveals itself as something far less heroic and endearing than it wants you to believe. I’m talking specifically about how women are excised from the narrative, and then copied and pasted in. They literally just appear. It’s the wonkiest math I’ve seen since Algebra 2 (and I barely passed that shit, so feel my pain). While we get these textured (see: favorable) and (what we’re led to believe are) nuanced portrayals of Dre, Eazy, Yella, Cube, and Ren, the film treats women as white noise.
In this glaring addition, the curtain is pulled back and (an apt viewer. I’ll give 90% people credit, because the film works you over so well) viewers can’t help but realize how invisible women have been to this entire story. Anonymous asses in the background. Groupies kicked out of hotel rooms. Smiling faces and fat titties on display. Bodies brutalized for emphasis. Fictional murders left to be ignored in the streets. The dissonance, to see these women and these relationships in all their two-dimensional glory, is massive and loud.
The added insult to this (sadly expected) injury is the lack of balance. The gaps of time left out. How can you tell the story of N.W.A. without explaining how fraught their meteoric rise was with issues inside the black and hip-hop communities, respectively and collectively? Where’s the portrayal of the tension with prominent black women writers? The Dee Barnes incident? Dre’s struggle to keep his hands off women? Note that this sampling is just dealing with the women who they had bad relationships with.
Taking all these gaps into consideration, to have the only real presentation of women in this film be either a mother, a (thoroughly light skin) ass in a bikini, your wife-to-be, or simply a body to be discarded or on display, shows just how high the jig goes. And boy, does it go high.
The question should and must be asked: for a group that singlehandedly grandfathered a new era of Hip-Hop, that included new levels of misogyny/misogynoir, how can you leave these things out? And what’s more: what are you willing to sacrifice to have heroes?
I’m not saying this to smear N.W.A. I’m saying it because it has been expressed that this film is American history. And the film definitely posits these cats as the spearhead to a silenced people and generation. But, this claim is heavy with an implicit need for legitimacy; a need that’s heavily coded in blackness. Let’s not forget that black folk have had to fight for legitimacy in all forms of American life since Day 1. But, in the fight to get said legitimacy, at what point then do we allow our histories to become uncomplicated?
Granted, the very job of most biopics is to uncomplicate histories. But, at least for me as a somewhat responsible and logical individual, you can’t make a claim for American history and not accept the mantle of complication. And if we are to be the griots of our own narratives, we should be finding ways to wholly and honestly tell our stories.
N.W.A. was and is complicated. And so is their legacy. Yet, SOC is too simple a story.
I find this dangerous not just of its own accord, but also because the plethora of writers and general moviegoers jump for the bait the film nestled itself in: namely the correlation between N.W.A.’s struggle with free speech and the rise of black, youth activism today. Thus, by giving you a story of police brutality, freedom of speech, and boys in the hood, the film skirts the harder conversations (see: misogyny, the hard job of humanizing the women who criticized N.W.A., and not just villainizing them, etc). This type of manipulation and generalization, coupled with Gray’s and N.W.A.’s own words, makes for a troubling situation.
If we don’t hold them accountable for this film, in all its glory *and* faults, we are losing. Because the issues that N.W.A. had then are the same issues we’re dealing with now. And to know that this film deftly positions their music as a benevolent forefather to the emphatic voice of current movements is heavily problematic and must be addressed.
So taking all that into account: see SOC if you want. It’s a good film on paper. And it will probably evoke something for you, especially depending on whether you grew up with N.W.A. or not. But know that this film is a simple telling of a complex, deep, and often painful history that has birthed both butterflies and caterpillars. There are lies in this film, as in all films. But this one, because of the nature of the lies it tells, should be footnoted heavily. Because those who were erased deserve better. And as a beholder of this slice of American history, you deserve better, too.
[Editor’s Note: Dee Barnes dropped her full story shortly after this one’s publishing. We have updated the link to her story to link that piece.]
TL;DR? Listen to me chop it up on Boys Will Be Boyz podcast and recap this and more: http://ow.ly/Riugi
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. @dapisdope