Oscars: 'Straight Outta Compton' — Could It Be a Contender? (Analysis)

Straight Outta Compton Still 2 - H 2015
Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

Straight Outta Compton Still 2 - H 2015

This weekend, as Straight Outta Compton racks up ticket sales that are projected to amount to $56.1 million, members of the industry are asking: Could the drama, which chronicles the rise and fall of the groundbreaking hip-hop group N.W.A, also become one of the year's first Oscar contenders?

Universal is said to be bullish about the film's awards prospects and, based on the audience it drew and reception it received at its official Academy screening on Saturday night, it's hard to disagree.

Almost all major motion pictures are invited to screen for Oscar voters at the Academy's 1012-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, but many play to a largely empty room, especially prior to the fall. Compton, however, drew a massive crowd, according to several Academy members with whom I spoke. "It was one of the bigger screenings I've seen in a long time," said one, "maybe 80 to 85 percent full." The week before, he said, a screening drew perhaps 200 people; this one, according to a Universal rep who was monitoring attendance, drew "well over 700." (One caveat: Prior to the fall, members are invited to bring with them up to three guests, so not everyone in the room was an Academy member — but even so, it was an impressive showing.)

The film itself seemed to go over very well. A powerful scene that plays before its opening credits was met with applause, an extremely rare response from hard-bitten members in the middle of a movie. (There have been only a few instances of it in recent years: following some of the numbers in Chicago, Anne Hathaway's show-stopper in Les Miserables and the thrilling finale of Argo. And all of those films went on to win major Oscars.) According to another member, "I talked to many members afterwards and they were very impressed."

Compton's cause was further boosted by a post-screening Q&A with producers Ice Cube and Scott Bernstein, producer-director F. Gary Gray and actors O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, moderated by KPCC's John Horn, which the filmmaker Julie Dash, a guest of a member in attendance, Periscoped for people who were unable to be in the room. "They handled the crowd expertly," said one member. "Ice Cube said to the crowd, 'I’m not anti-police,' even though there’s a lot of police brutality portrayed in the film. He said, 'I support the police.'"

Every year, at least one film comes out of nowhere to become a major player in the Oscar season. Could Compton be that film this year? In the words of one Academy member, "It succeeds as a studio picture while transcending what that usually is. It’s a very visceral, poetic, terrific film. It is worthy of some real consideration, particularly I think for acting, directing and even best picture — but, but, it’s very early in the season, and there are a zillion other pictures coming out."

In my view, there are several other things that the film has going for it. For one, many — perhaps most — Oscar nominees tap into the zeitgeist, directly or indirectly, in some way. I would argue that No Country for Old Men (2007) spoke to the fatalism felt by many Americans (and particularly many left-leaning people like many of those in the Academy) about the state of the nation during the final years of George W. Bush's presidency, while Slumdog Millionaire (2008) spoke to the optimism and hope that those same people felt around the time of Barack Obama's election to replace him.

At the present moment, Americans are on edge about race relations — and specifically relations between black communities and white police officers — across our country, and many seem hungry for a smart look, direct or indirect, at the black experience and race relations today, or at least in recent history. On TV, Fox's massive hit drama Empire touches on many of these themes, employing as its lead actor and actress the stars of a 2005 film about hip-hop music that did the same, Hustle & Flow — for which, it is worth recalling, Terrence Howard was nominated for the best actor Oscar and the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" won the best original song Oscar. Why couldn't Compton resonate as that film did?

Also of note: Compton is an L.A. story — a story about a slice of life in and around the largest hub of Academy members anywhere — and recent history has shown how much Oscar voters respond to stories near and/or dear to them. Crash, another film about racial tensions in the L.A.-area, is the most relevant example, but The Artist and Argo also are L.A.-set, and Birdman, while not L.A.-set, was about the strains of the jobs of those who are. It's hard to ignore the fact that each of those films won the best picture Oscar.

Speaking to those points, Ava DuVernay, the black director of Selma (2014) who was invited to join the Academy in 2013, posted a string of Tweets on Sunday morning after catching Compton at a theater in South Central L.A. on Saturday night "with a beautiful, alive invested audience. Invested because many of them, like me, were there": "Damn, they got it right. Under @FGaryGray's brilliant direction + @MattyLibatique's gorgeous cinematography, I was transported back... The music of my youth and how it came to be and why it was what it was. We rapped along, clapped, laughed, cried. For all that has happened. All the stifling of our voices as young black people in that place at that time while a war was going on against us... Terrific acting, solid production design, swoon-worthy cinematography and fab costumes... @FGaryGray gets you as close as you'll ever get... This film did it for me on multiple levels. It's fantastic."

Now, in fairness, there are several other things that could potentially work against Compton's awards prospects.

For one, the Academy has rarely recognized films about black people except when they are depicted in subservient roles, as the actor David Oyelowo noted earlier this year. Among other egregious snubs, Oscar voters opted not to nominate for best picture Do the Right Thing (1989), Glory (1989), Boys n the Hood (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and Selma; The Color Purple (1985) was nominated for 11 Oscars, including best picture, but lost all of them (a record-tying shutout); Sidney Poitier wasn't even nominated for best actor for In the Heat of the Night (1967), which won the best picture Oscar; and the documentaries Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011) weren't nominated for an Oscar.

In other words, those who suggest that the best picture win of 12 Years a Slave (2013) means that the Academy no longer avoids matters of race aren't necessarily correct. As one member said to me when this came up during our discussion of Compton, "Just because [my fellow members] liked 12 Years a Slave does not mean they're all open to this. I loved 12 Years a Slave, but let’s be honest, it’s the Masterpiece Theatre version of that story, and we all know how popular Masterpiece Theatre is and who its audience is."

This member added about the people in the voting group, "They’re not all Neanderthals," but pointed out that while the film's Academy screening generated strong attendance from those "who are aware, willing and open," there were still a considerable number of members who weren't there and who may not make the effort to catch up with the film at a later time. "I hate to say this," he said, "but when you think about all the members who will not see the film or who will watch it for 20 minutes at home and then say it’s too violent — that may be a problem. Plus, a lot of members who do see it, won’t get it — they just don’t understand the richness, the variety, the rhythm of what movies can be. They still wish all movies were like The Sound of Music." (Of course, violence and vulgarity didn't keep the 2006 film The Departed, with its mostly white cast, from winning the best picture Oscar.)

The bottom line: Straight Outta Compton may well end up serving as something of a barometer for how successful the Academy's efforts to increase the diversity of its membership actually have been.