Native Sons: Dope vs. Straight Outta Compton

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Young black men coming of age in troubled environments (read: the hood) have proven successful with audiences and critics for some time now: Do the Right Thing (1989), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Baby Boy (2001), etc. It’s a familiar tale, and this year two films on the same theme enjoyed much the same welcome. Yet for all their promise, Sundance-darling Dope and N. W. A. biopic Straight Outta Compton both fail – not just politically, but cinematically – to meet the standard of a genre packed with classics. Unlike their predecessors, here the acclaim (especially over the top in Compton‘s case) two such mediocre pictures managed to achieve feels almost patronizing.

They do succeed, however, in one critical way, essential really, to these Black Boy-narratives.

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Apart from black casts and black directors – a rare thing, admittedly – Straight Outta Compton and Dope don’t seem immediately comparable. Dope tells the story of self-proclaimed “geek” Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), who finds himself saddled with an incarcerated drug dealer’s stash, forcing him to sell the drugs for his own safety and threatening his dreams of Harvard. Meanwhile, Straight Outta Compton chronicles the success and hardships of N. W. A. members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – Cube’s real life son) and Eazy – E (Jason Mitchell), whose anthem “Fuck the Police” galvanized a generation.

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On the brink of Straight Outta Compton‘s release, Selma director Ava Duvernay tweeted, “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” Much like hip hop, when consuming these immensely popular films that center black boys and diminish black girls, the latter is continually expected to compartmentalize. You see, a win for black men is a win for us all. The black male experience in America has long meant to suffice for the black female as well. Except, black manhood in America has been, from its origins, a tricky ordeal steeped in insecurity. All the privilege of gender coupled with the disadvantage of race gave way to many anxieties, not least of them the “healthy achievement of manhood” (bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman) predicated on the subordination of black women. Such is the pleasure of misogynoir, that space where sexism and racism overlap for black women. So you can see why this is a dangerous face for the whole of the black experience to wear.

From the beginning I suspected Straight Outta Compton would have a serious “Woman” problem. It didn’t take long to appear either. Even before filming started, a leaked casting call raised eyebrows and turned stomachs with its racist physical requirements.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, Hawkins, Jackson, Mitchell, 2015.

Dope, meanwhile, seems to possess all the ingredients of something new, progressive, and different – a lesbian main character, a nerdy black hero – but does nothing with them. In many ways, the film is a kind of meta-work: a loving shout-out to the ’90s and indeed the era of hip hop N. W. A. themselves helped to usher in. No doubt Famuyiwa even took most of his cues from Gray’s own Friday. But stunning costumes aside, the film’s performances are lopsided (its best actors Kimberly Elise and Roger Guenveur Smith are wasted although Moore makes for a solid lead); the plot is meandering, bordering on clunky; and there is a bizarre perpetration of dangerous myths about the black community. And while certainly a diverse entry into the – largely white – teen comedy genre, for a film set in present-day Los Angeles, there is not a single dark-skinned female in sight, much less within the main cast. What’s more, none of the women who do appear have anything resembling a personality. Chanel Iman makes a humiliating cameo as a messy, poor little drugged-out rich girl; Kiersey Clemons’ Diggy is defined strictly by her sexuality and her “boyish” appearance; while Zoe Kravitz is sidelined as little more than the object of Malcolm’s sexual fixation.

Zoe Kravitz, DOPE, 2015.

DOPE, Zoe Kravitz, , 2015.

Historically, black music, film, and literature has often juxtaposed the fair-skinned black woman as romantic and feminine next to the dark-skinned black woman, nagging and sexless. But Dope and Straight Outta Compton have removed the latter altogether.

While unsurprising in both cases, with the film’s surviving subjects Dre and Cube acting as producers while their close friend F. Gary Gray directed, Compton never really stood a chance. The result: a predictably safe vanity piece, sacrificing complexity for likability when it comes to its main characters. No matter. The underdog elements inherent in N. W. A.’s story along with their wide fanbase assured the film blockbuster status long before it hit the big screen. Fans of the group and hip hop in general are rewarded with iconic tunes and endless cameos, including Snoop Dogg and Tupac. The performances – particularly from Jackson as Cube and Mitchell as Eazy – are solid. There’s even room for some lasting imagery like the group running from police after a concert. But Compton breaks no rules. You learn nothing new; in fact, you’re more likely to be misled by the film than you are to get an honest sense of its heroes. 

One huge, if widely overlooked aspect of N. W. A.’s legacy was their unabashed misogyny. True, these talented young men revolutionized a genre and articulated the pain of a generation; but they also really hated women. Black women, specifically. It was not just an image; it transcended their music and seeped into the way they lived their lives. Somehow, Dre emerges as the film’s beacon of light: a humble genius dedicated to the music and a kind of savior (after all, it’s Dre who convinces Eazy to stop selling drugs and focus on rapping). Hawkins puts in a commendable effort, but anybody who knows even a little bit about Dre and his scowling persona could spot the deceit in this depiction of him.

Ironic that in the effort to sterilize this history, the film itself becomes an act of misogyny. Much ado has already been made over the decision to remove Dre’s brutal assault of music reporter Dee Barnes from the film, but it hardly ends there. Dre also physically and emotionally tormented his ex-fiance and mother of his son, R & B singer Michel’le, even going so far as to shoot at her.

Of course, the waters of controversy quelled as soon as Dre made a public apology. The film went on to earn millions worldwide and the reception – for all its shortcomings – has been nothing short of glowing.

It’s a disappointing departure from the diversity of last year’s black cinema when we had comedy (Top Five), satire (Dear White People), period drama (Belle), romance (Beyond the Lights), and historical drama (Selma). We seem to have returned once again to the conventional, and it’s true, there’s no place for black women there.

 

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