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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Oscar Prevue 2

  By Tom Phillips

"Straight Outta Compton"
Confession -- When it comes to artistic awards, I'm not a big fan of affirmative action. So when African-Americans were snubbed in the Oscar nominations this year, I didn't join the outrage at first. My question was, did African-Americans do anything worthy of a major award?

The answer is, as NWA might put it -- Fuck Yes! "Straight Outta Compton" is full of foul language, violence, illegal substances, squalor, prejudice, ignorance and disrespect for women.  It's like walking into the mean streets, messy homes and hip recording studios of LA's ghetto in the 1980s, where rap music became an art form and a a vehicle for rebellious free speech.

I'm no expert on rap or hip-hop.  Like most white people, I cringe when I hear the F-word blasting from somebody's car radio.  But "Straight Outta Compton" makes the case for the outrageousness of rap as an answer to the outrages endured by African-Americans. The story of of NWA -- that's Niggaz Wit Attitude -- is peppered with authentic TV news clips from the 80s and 90s -- most dramatically the video of the LAPD's assault on Rodney King.  Then we have Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw going tut-tut about the rawness of this new rap music.  But they can't say it comes out of nowhere.

"Straight Outta Compton" addresses issues that are as live today as in the 1980s.  It got just one Oscar nomination, for the screenplay.  The Academy showered its highest praise on movies celebrating protesters of the historic past -- fighting battles that are over and won.  "Trumbo" tells the story of a screenwriter blacklisted for his membership in the American Communist Party.  Bryan Cranston plays a cardboard character who speaks eloquently and courageously, stands up to Congress and the Hollywood establishment, survives and in the end is justified.  In "Carol," Cate Blanchett plays a housewife with lesbian desires, whose sexuality proves problematic in the uptight 50s.  Both movies are boring because we know the real-life ending in terms of social justice.  Yes you're allowed to be a communist, yes it's fine to be a lesbian.  Cranston is nominated for Best Actor, Blanchett for Best Actress.

How about Niggaz Wit Attitude?  "Straight Outta Compton" is in your face. O'Shea Jackson Jr. smolders as Ice Cube, and Jason Mitchell raps with passion and presence as Eric "Easy E" Wright. He sickens and dies in full tragic style.  Paul Giamatti proves himself again a master of understated character acting.  Grey-haired and potbellied, this fatherly figure is the classic manager -- promoting and protecting his artists, ripping them off, truly believing that everything he does is in their interest. Director F. Gary Gray keeps it moving for a tense, breathless two and a half hours. Nothing looks cuttable.

"Straight Outta Compton" tells it like it was and is.  Kendrick Lamar gave NWA credit when he accepted his Grammy Award this week -- and followed up with a performance as incendiary as the riotous protests NWA started in the 1980s.  Good for the Grammys, to let him rap freely, even if they bleeped out one passage.

Finally --- to anyone who says this movie isn't wholesome -- take note of this. America has stopped smoking, but Hollywood somehow hasn't.  In movie after movie, cigarettes play their traditional role as symbols of sexiness, thoughtfulness, whatever.  "Trumbo" and Carol" both look like non-stop cigarette commercials.  (Is this just product placement, minus the brand names?  I think so.)  By contrast, in "Straight Outta Compton," only thugs smoke.  Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy E. never touch that stuff.  That makes it the cleanest movie of the year.

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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