Straight Outta Compton sells audiences a myth

What are the chances that Ice Cube will be held properly to account for an anti-Semitic slur in a film produced by Ice Cube?

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In Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, a relationship that began as a one-night stand reached a maturity of sorts in three days. In his new film, 45 Years, a long marriage is jeopardised at a similarly accelerated rate. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is preparing to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary with Geoff (Tom Courtenay). The hall is booked, the catering arranged; but there is an uninvited guest, in a manner of speaking.

Before he met Kate, Geoff had another great love – “my Katya”, he calls her, setting his wife’s teeth singing. She perished after falling into a crevasse in the Swiss Alps in 1962. Now he learns that her body has been found perfectly preserved. The news returns Geoff to that lost time, like a computer restored to its factory settings. As Kate sees she is losing her husband to the idealised fantasy of the past, the film develops into a genteel horror movie played no louder than a whisper. It’s a battle between two kinds of ice monster, one living, one undead; even their names, Kate and Katya, are almost identical. The outcome is uncertain. But one close-up of Rampling’s implacable glacier of a face tells you this lady’s not for melting.

On paper, 45 Years sounds more like 45 metaphors: there’s the return of the repressed, the lost radicalism of the 1960s, the impossibility of perfect love. Yet Haigh’s fluid direction is anything but academic. This is never more evident than when Kate is looking at old slides projected on a screen in the attic, the shot framed precisely so that her mounting distress and the images causing it are available to us simultaneously without cutaways. It’s a film that demands to be heard as well as seen. A soundtrack of carbon-dated 45s (“Go Now”, “Happy Together”) keeps the themes alive in our ears as well as in front of our eyes.

But it is the performances that are the source of the infinite warmth and pain here. The simplest exchange is rendered ambiguous in the hands, or rather the features, of these actors. When Geoff tells Kate, “You were a bloody knockout!”, Courtenay delivers the line through gritted teeth, lending it a hint of carnal fury, as though resenting as well as rejoicing in her beauty (or the loss of it). And though it has long been accepted that philosophers will crack the meaning of life before anyone figures out what Charlotte Rampling is thinking, her expression in the final shot is enigmatic even by her standards, and enough to plunge the entire conclusion into free fall.

There can be no elegant segue from a study of English marital discord to the glossy tale of NWA (Niggaz Wit’ Attitude), the hip-hop pioneers whose most notorious song, “Fuck Tha Police”, incurred the wrath of the FBI. But Straight Outta Compton concerns in its own way the chasm between the unchangeable past and the uncontainable present. The rapper Ice Cube is portrayed on screen by his own son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr (a real chip off the old cube). At the start of the film, he and the other members of NWA – including Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) – turn the reality of being young and African-American into splenetic rap songs that articulate their rage at the everyday racism of the LAPD. At the other end of the film, following feuds over disputed riches, the group members reflect on the past (“It was a simpler time . . . We changed the world . . .”), like old-timers with baseball caps instead of flat caps.

Early scenes show clearly how NWA’s music emerged from the war zone of south central LA in the 1980s. Thereafter, Straight Outta Compton comes straight out of the school of biopic cliché – the fatal illness heralded by a persistent cough, the exposition disguised as dialogue (“Spinning records ain’t gonna pay the bills around here!”), the elevation of its subjects to minor deities. That is only to be expected when a film’s main characters are also its producers. What are the chances that Ice Cube will be held properly to account for an anti-Semitic slur in a film produced by Ice Cube? Or that Dr Dre, as another of the producers, would suggest cutting the shot of Eazy-E (who is no longer alive to object) gazing proudly at a billboard proclaiming sales of five million albums by Dr Dre? NWA may have been snarling attack dogs, but in Straight Outta Compton, audiences are being sold a pup.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism