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READ MORE: Indiewire’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’ Review
“The radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination,” says Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), the outspoken Communist screenwriter at the center of “Trumbo,” opening this week. The line from John McNamara’s screenplay refers to the seeming paradox of the successful writer’s lifestyle and politics, but anticipates a very different time and place.
In “Straight Outta Compton,” F. Gary Gray’s sprawling, messy but highly enjoyable portrait of N.W.A.’s pioneering role in the birth of hip hop culture, the quest for riches is itself a radical maneuver. Assaulting racial discrimination and lower class frustrations through their furious lyrics, the sleek musical team that included Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E ostensibly issued a corrective to the marginalized role of African American identity in the American media.
That places the movie at the center of a theme percolating throughout this year’s fall movie season. Several new movies deal with the value of shoe-leather reporting to right wrongs in American society, from the misguided attempts by Dan Rather to expose George W. Bush’s questionable military record in “Truth” to the team of reporters unraveling a history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in “Spotlight.” Only in “Compton,” however, do we witness a true revolution in the communication of a powerful message through mainstream channels. N.W.A. didn’t just challenge the system; they rewired the machine with rhythm and rhymes.
That doesn’t make “Compton” a perfect movie. At times, the story borders on pure camp — a passing shot of Cube giggling at his “Friday” script, a movie that Gray himself would end up directing, epitomizes the meta absurdity riddled throughout this meandering, two-and-a-half hour celebratory portrait. However, “Compton” succeeds at conveying the sheer power of the group to galvanize its audience. The montage sequence featuring the group’s initial recording of “Fuck tha Police,” which occurs in the wake of a tensely staged showdown with racist cops, places the song in a vivid context that lasts throughout the film.
In a Detroit stadium, having been cautioned by the local authorities against performing “Fuck tha Police,” the group proceeds to do just that. Gray’s camera swirls about the arena as thousands of middle fingers rise up in unison; the air of rebellious glee is palpable. It establishes a foundation for later, more somber moments during the Rodney King riots, when the film’s titular slogan surfaces in graffiti throughout downtown Los Angeles and becomes a mantra of pure fury.
When the group faces questions from the press about the extreme tone of their lyrics, Cube responds by defining their art as journalism — a comparison that comes up time and again as the media falls short of acknowledging a higher calling beyond the rock star lifestyle that greets the group’s success. However, while Rather’s team faces scrutiny for their reporting in “Truth,” nobody goes after N.W.A. for the veracity of their claims about police savagery. The issue is with tone, not truth, and that distinction speaks to the lasting vitality of hip hop’s sneaky journalistic finesse.
By showcasing as much through its vibrant narrative, “Compton” goes much further than “Spotlight” (which opens next week), a respectable ode to the ethics and responsibility of the reporting process. Tom McCarthy’s drama operates on a much subtler level of intrigue, intelligently applauding the mode of inquiry at its center. “Spotlight,” like “Truth” and “Trumbo,” foregrounds the commitment of virtuous people acting in the public interest. While well-acted to a fault and littered with obsessive details, all three movies do a better job of formulating the symbolic value of their characters as agents of change than building their personalities into that process.
In “Compton,” the personalities are the process. The movie chronicles the evolution of a new medium engineered for the expression of moral outrage. Other new releases competently celebrate the value of marching to a different beat, but only in “Compton” is it a sick one.
This feature was originally published on November 2, 2015.