Straight Outta Compton: Black Films that Got Snubbed (or Shut Out of the Oscars)
The box office numbers spoke for itself, but Straight Outta Compton’s lack of nominations in the 88th Academy Awards was another example of the Academy’s exclusion of Black films. Other true story films Spotlight and Bridge of Spies received 6 nominations while The Big Short received 5. The Big Short was a great film to me, but Bridge of Spies put me to sleep while Spotlight was a one-and-done viewing. I am in no way diminishing the importance of the true events depicted in these films (the issue of pedophilia in the Catholic Church is a serious one), but Straight Outta Compton deserved the same attention.
Before I continue I’m going to get this out of the way and say: there are a few things that weigh down the film’s overall impact. As pointed out by numerous film critics, women are given little to do in the film besides being regulated to background groupies most of the time. Dr Dre’s past history of sexual assault and violence against women is not addressed at all. Apparently, the original cut featured scenes depicting Dr Dre’s assault on journalist Dee Barnes. Also, virtually no comment is made on the homophobic (or misogynistic) lyrics present in much of N.W.A.’s music. One could argue that the film accurately represents the times for women and awareness on the LGBTQ community, but these omissions leave somewhat of a bitter taste.
Speaking of omissions, one unfamiliar with the history of N.W.A. would walk away from the film knowing very little about MC Ren or DJ Yella. Both men have spoken about the film and thankfully, seem to have reached a peace of mind on the project. There are a few other omissions including Dre’s abusive relationship with Michel’le (an entire biopic about her was made not long after Straight Outta Compton) and the involvement of Arabian Prince in NWA’s pioneering years (the upcoming Sonic movie just used J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” in the trailer).
I’m not here to compare Straight Outta Compton to any other based on a true story movies that have been honored by the Academy Awards. I will talk about what the film somehow manages to achieve despite its problematic exclusion of historical events. “Fuck tha Police” still resonates today (even with that unfortunate use of a homophobic slur in Ice Cube’s rhymes) as do the scenes where Cube, Dre, Yella, and Ren are subjected to police harassment and brutality.
As I re-watched Straight Outta Compton for the third time (this time the extended cut which still excludes some key events), I placed myself into the reality of everyday life in Compton in that time period. I imagined myself walking out of my residence at night to smoke a cigarette (bad habit). I could be dehumanized in a matter of seconds with 2 options: shut up or go to jail. That reality is still in place today, but something about watching it before the days of social media makes it even more disturbing.
What Straight Outta Compton captures despite its historical omissions, is an inspirational true story of Black men who had the courage to stand up to the system oppressing them. Could you imagine receiving a letter from the F.B.I. threatening you over a song? It’s empowering to see N.W.A. follow another incident of police harassment by recording “Fuck Tha Police.” It’s empowering to see them perform the song after the F.B.I. threat. You really gotta have courage to look into the face of the F.B.I. and say “nah.”
The portrayal of the history and culture of the film’s time period (1986–1996) is another one of Straight Outta Compton’s strongest aspects. I’ve now watched it 3 times (the theatrical cut twice, director’s cut once) and each time I’ve felt like I experienced the time period with NWA. I secretly wish that they made a mini-series instead (similar to Wu-Tang: An American Saga on Hulu) so that everything could have been explored. Oh well, I guess it’s on me to go watch some documentaries and read a book or two.
I will say that the director’s cut does somewhat of a better job at painting Jerry Heller as the bad guy who exploited the group. Unfortunately, the addition of a few more instances of female nudity (along with the controversy of the film’s casting call), makes the film’s lack of female voices a little more unsettling. For this reasons and the aforementioned exlusions, I am unable to completely praise the film even though it’s extremely well-made.
Overall, Straight Outta Compton is a great film that captures a moment in history. The Academy only gave it one nomination in 2015 (but Green Book can win Best Picture) for the 4 credited screenwriters: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, Alan Wenkus, and S. Leigh Savidge. Herman and Berloff are Jewish, but all 4 writers are white, which is ironic considering the only white people in the movie are oppressive (the police) or exploitative (Jerry Heller) towards NWA.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. deserved an acting nomination as did Jason Mitchell. Hell, the Academy didn’t even give Paul Giamatti a shot (at least Danny Aielo got an Oscar nom when they snubbed Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1990). F. Gary Gray also deserved a best director nomination. I will give the Academy some credit for giving the award to Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant. Unfortunately, the other nominated films in this category (The Big Short, Room, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road), had zero people of color at the forefront.
Will I be watching the upcoming 92nd Academy Awards ceremony? Probably not. In recent years, I’ve found more joy in paying attention to the Independent Spirit Awards, which does a much greater job at awarding filmmakers justly. The Academy Awards have not only been drowned in controversy the past few years, but have declined in ratings as well.
The big question though is, will it make a difference if everyone stops watching the Academy Awards? I certainly believe so. Remember when the Academy announced that they were shaking things up with the Oscar-granting members by adding young and diverse voices to the conversation? Guess which film won Best Picture the following year? I’m not trying to trigger anyone like that, so I’ll leave that up to your imagination if you don’t already know. The Academy added more this year, but I won’t be happy until I see results at the actual ceremony.
What do you think about Straight Outta Compton as a film? Did the historical omissions turn you off of it completely? What are some of your favorite moments of the film? Is there anything/aspect of the film that speaks to you personally or do you have any personal favorite scenes?
I will be writing about more Black films that were snubbed in the months leading up to the Oscars. Follow me to see those as soon as I post them and let me know if there are any movies I should check out!