With the regularity of something that is extremely regular, pundits and politicians solemnly intone that America needs to have a conversation about race. Actually, it seems like Americans have been having this conversation for several centuries. We’re happy to talk about race, but not prepared to do much about racism. African Americans keep getting shot, politicians keep escalating their appalling rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans, and–as we’ve seen all too clearly this year–movies keep getting made by, for, and about white people. Even when the characters are non-white, they are often played by white actors. (It’s a testament to Cameron Crowe’s talent that casting Emma Stone as a woman of mixed Asian and Hawaiian heritage actually wasn’t the worst thing about Aloha. Truly an astonishing achievement.)
While there are periodically major hits directed by and starring black artists, such as The Best Man series or the output of Tyler Perry’s empire, these films still exist on the fringes of the Hollywood system. Latino/as and Asian Americans may be even more invisible, and major films are virtually never helmed by nor geared toward these communities. Hollywood is attempting to tiptoe in this direction in the lower-stakes realm of television, with sitcoms such as the defunct Cristela and the charming Fresh Off the Boat.
The Academy Awards made this exclusion clearer than ever this year and last, when no non-white actors were nominated in any category. And one of the breakout hits of the year–Straight Outta Compton–was almost entirely ignored as well. The film was a massive commercial success and won praise from critics (88% approval on Rotten Tomatoes). However, it only got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the consolation prize typically reserved for weirdo indie films that might be excellent but are too eccentric to make it to Best Picture status. (By the way, where is the wonderful, funny, and heartbreaking Tangerine this award season? But I digress.)
Whatever its critical or commercial success, Straight Outta Compton tapped into the political zeitgeist like few films in recent memory. Released in the Summer of 2015, as anger and frustration over the killings of unarmed African Americans continued to boil in communities across the country, a trip back to the Age of Reagan and the LA Riots gave audiences a bracing sense of historical resonance and context. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it reminded anyone who cared to listen that the problems only seem new if you weren’t paying attention. Here is our review of the film from last August.