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Straight Outta Compton: Living Their Playlist

I spent a good chunk of my broadcasting career as a film critic. It was a title that I was proud to wear because it gave me a sense of importance and authority whenever someone wanted my opinion about a movie. Over time, I realized that with or without the “critic” title, I was just a person, with an opinion, who liked films. Sure, I had a trained eye for subtle nuances in movies. And I might remember a few more character actor’s names than the average person. But I was hardly Roger Ebert. I attended multiple Awards Shows and met dozens of Academy-Award winners. Along the way, I interviewed hundreds of people in the film industry (actors, directors, and producers); and even had a brief stint in a blockbuster film. I was often wowed by the entertainment industry, and in awe of many brilliant performances over the years. But it was rare for me to be touched by a film so deeply that I would gladly watch it on repeat or talk about it for days after my first viewing.

When I look at the list of films that won the Oscar for Best Picture over the last few decades, it’s an impressive list. Titanic was a beautifully made film that I saw in theaters at least five times. And I’ve loved Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio ever since they created film-making magic together. But whenever Titanic plays on cable now, I stop watching it once the ship begins to sink. In my opinion, Gladiator may be one of the best epic films of all time. And Russell Crowe will always be one of my favorite actors. It’s a film that would likely make it into my Top 10 list. But truthfully, it takes commitment and focus for me to watch Gladiator from start to finish today. Argo was a film that I told everyone to see upon its release. I voted for it to win Best Picture in the Critic’s Choice Awards (I even had a chance to tell Ben Affleck in person how much I loved his film). In a year of tough competition, Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture. And I was happy about that outcome. But I haven’t watched the film again since.

When I was a film critic, I saw every movie that was Oscar-worthy (and plenty that weren’t). Now, I only see films that I want to see. A few days ago, I went to a late night showing of the musical biopic Straight Outta Compton. The film was getting good reviews. And as a writer who believes that music can change people’s lives, I was curious to learn more about how five young men, with seemingly little opportunity, revolutionized the music industry and Hip Hop culture through their group, N.W.A. They wrote honest and raw music about the streets that they grew up on; and their lyrics were relevant to others who grew up on similar streets, but who didn’t have the power of a microphone.

I was a kid in the 80s when N.W.A was first born. Music industry names like Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre were familiar to me, but to be perfectly honest, I was bopping around in my Benetton rugbies and Keds shoes to music by New Kids on The Block and Madonna. I was a white girl, living in a middle class town, on an upper middle class street, where the only street noise came from lawns being mowed, or neighborhood kids playing kickball and ghost-in-the-graveyard. Mine was a safe neighborhood and very different from the streets of Compton where the story of N.W.A first begins. I had my own bathroom and bedroom as a kid. My guess is that the boys who created N.W.A didn’t have much that was their own. My neighbors were both doctors. I’ve never been to Compton, but I’m guessing that their aren’t any physicians in that neighborhood. (There was a rumor that one of the kids on my street got into trouble making fake IDs. But I can’t confirm that rumor. I was only 12 years old when I heard it). But that “rumor” is about as close as my neighborhood got to having any “street cred.” The reason that I’m making these comparisons is because when I set out to write this blog, I had to ask myself, what do I have in common with five black boys who grew up in a poor, rough neighborhood? What can I possibly write about that is relevant to their story? And would any of my readers care what I have to say on this topic?

Have you ever had a dream that seemed too big to achieve? Maybe you’ve said to yourself, “My dream is impossible to fulfill.” Someone in my life recently said to me, “If a man didn’t think it was possible to build a car, we’d all still be riding around on horses.” While I was watching Straight Outta Compton, I was steadily in awe of the fearlessness that the young men in the movie possessed. (And if they had fear, they clearly plowed right through it, opting for the theory, “What do we have to lose by going for it?”). They had no money. They had little education. They had many doubters. They were victims of racism. And they were stereotyped by most people in positions of power and influence. But they had a vision. They had passion. They had stories to tell; stories that resonated with many people. And so they put those stories to paper; creating lyrics and beats that ignited a social revolution. Their music made headlines, but more than that, it gave strength to people who couldn’t find their own voices (or believed that their voices would never be heard). They were five boys who could have easily said, “No one will give our music a chance.” But they didn’t. They lived their lyrics. And fans lived their playlist. 

There are historical and social reasons to see Straight Outta Compton. And if you enjoy well-crafted film-making, it doesn’t get much better than this movie. But if you’re a dreamer, or you want to be inspired by people who break through limitations that are placed upon them, this film is worth more than one viewing. You don’t have to love hip hop music (but you may walk away with an appreciation for it). You don’t need to know what a rap diss means (although you will learn). And you shouldn’t assume that it’s not your type of film. If you go in with an open mind, at the very least, you’ll be entertained.

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