East Coast vs. West Coast: On Straight Outta Compton and Fort Tilden

Straight Outta Compton doesn’t exactly qualify as a nontraditional biopic; in terms of structure, it mostly adheres to the rise/fall narrative with the option for an additional rise. Earlier this summer, the Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy toyed with those boundaries with far more innovation. But even set half in the ’80s, Love and Mercy, like so many movies about popular music, was rooted in baby boomer music of the ’60s; Straight Outta Compton, in telling the mostly sanctioned story of N.W.A., actually starts in the 1986, which still counts as a novelty. True to its title, the movie roots itself in the streets of Los Angeles and surrounding environs; an early scene catching Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) in a drug raid looks positively apocalyptic. But the imagery doesn’t just come from gang violence; it’s the police battering ram tearing apart a house that makes the scene look so untenable.

As the movie skips from Eazy to a young Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his dad), police harassment is a common theme, along with the recurring image of black men being slammed against car hoods for no reason. Cube and Dre are more interested in lyric-writing and DJing, respectively, than the drug trade, and E wants out, too. But even when they’ve signed up with a manager (Paul Giamatti) who looks shadier as the movie progresses but downright friendly in the context of Compton, the cops won’t leave them alone: putting them on the ground, asking what they’re doing outside a recording studio, daring them to fight back. Some of this is broad (“rap is not an art!” one cop – a middle-aged black man – spits contemptuously); it’s also feels undeniably and depressingly relevant. Pop biopics often traffic in simplistic song origins, but when Straight Outta Compton cuts hard from N.W.A. getting harassed on the streets into them performing “Fuck Tha Police,” it’s not just a pat explanation of a famous and controversial song. It makes audiences (some of whom will not have experienced racism firsthand) feel the song’s righteous frustration. To put it in my dorky white terms: it feels fucking punk rock.

I don’t know much about N.W.A., so I’m grateful that director F. Gary Gray makes this music history flow as well as it does for much of the film. Usually a journeyman like Gray, who directed Cube’s Friday (hence several in-movie shout-outs) along with The Negotiator and The Italian Job, among others, will play material like this straight down the middle, like Taylor Hackford doing Ray. But Gray captures the energy of N.W.A., the camera pushing through the streets and recording studios with confidence, though sometimes it seems as if the editing has cut up some of his more ambitious or electric shots.

He’s got a lot of ground to cover, as the movie takes points of view sympathetic to Cube, Dre, and E all at once (MC Ren and DJ Yella don’t get quite so detailed a treatment) as they grapple with fame and newfound power – and the money that their contracts seem to funnel through E and his Ruthless Records label. It makes sense, but after a while, especially in its second half, the movie begins to feel a bit like the result of contractual negotiations itself: Cube can nod to Friday if E’s contract shenanigans are kept vague, Dre gets dibs on the last scene, and everyone agrees that no one needs to talk about how any of these artists treated women (not an unfamiliar biopic complaint, of course, but left pointedly unaddressed in a movie with a lot of anonymous naked chicks). The movie goes surprisingly far into the ’90s, and its attempts to chart the band’s influence and connections to the West Coast rap scene wind up playing a little like one of many pop-biopic clichés that Walk Hard may have permanently annihilated: Hey, I want you to meet my friend… Snoop D-o-double-g! Hey, what’d you think of that take, Tupac Shakur? There is a rift growing between us, Suge Knight! That final scene with Dre is particularly lame; after a whole movie (or at least half a movie) showing how important and amazing N.W.A. was as a group, the final word goes to Dr. Dre, teasing the formation of his vanity record label like it’s the fucking Avengers initiative. As the narrative turns more meta and self-reflexive, Straight Outta Compton loses some of the punk spirit of its strong first hour. But, you know, that’s what happens when a lot of bands go major-label.

Over on the east coast in 2015, the streets are overrun with white hipsters, or at least that’s the unspoken diagnosis of Fort Tilden, a new Brooklyn-born indie opening in select theaters and available on iTunes the same day as Compton. Actually, the comedy by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers subtly treats its tragicomic duo of Allie (Clare McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliott, daughter of Chris and sister of Abby) as, if not exactly the Other, certainly adrift in their own environment unmoored from any particular group or clique beyond a generational allegiance to texting. The movie is not exactly diverse; the most prominent black characters are a man who joins in a group of Park Slope folks joining in a chorus of protest and outrage when Allie dings a stoller with her bike and, more centrally, the phone voice of a worker for the Peace Corps, who is having none of Allie’s flaky, whiny, haphazard approach to her enrollment, which she spends much of the movie both talking about and, it seems, dreading (her assignment will be Liberia – in other words, keeping the promise of other black characters pointedly offscreen). The movie’s gentrification politics aren’t exactly front and center, but the way that Bliss and Rogers zoom in on Allie and Harper, two against the (small) world and often each other, marks them as unable to function in the New York they seem to kinda, sorta love. Over the course of ninety-plus minutes, plenty of characters come and go, yet the movie feels very much like a duet between McNulty and Elliott.

The movie takes place over twenty-four hours, most of which is spent attempting to go to the secluded Brooklyn beach of the title to meet up with some guys Allie and Harper encounter in the first scene. They meet the boys at a rooftop performance of a folk duo, sorta-friends (hardly any friendships in this movie feel closer than “sorta”) of Allie and Harper, who spend the performance texting insults to each other RE: its tedium. The scene (and particularly a line about how the boys “could be not terrible”) establishes the pair as a sort of mid-twenties version of Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World: outsiders with no patience for most other people and decreasing patience even for each other. Though they have plenty in common, Allie wants to show some kind of responsibility (hence her planned two-year sojourn to Liberia, which multiple other hipsters tell her is the “worst place”), but may be finding it beyond her. McNulty conveys this beautifully whenever Allie is called upon to politely pay attention to someone; her quasi-earnest listening faces are a riot.

Harper, meanwhile, lives off of her father’s money while trying to make it as an unspecified artist who doesn’t have much to say – but who does, to her credit, speak her selfish and impulsive mind more directly than her friend. She invites herself to Fort Tilden with the new boys and convinces Allie to “take a day off” to join them. It does not go well; put together, the pair is surprisingly ill-equipped to bike out to the Rockaways, especially considering that Harper suggests biking without fully realizing that she doesn’t actually own a bike. The movie is like Quick Change in miniature, with haplessness subbing in for New York quirks. In a telling scene, a bike is stolen not because New York’ll get you at every turn, but because the girls are too preoccupied with figuring out whether the bike is being stolen, and what they could even do about that, to actually stop it from happening.

Some of the girls’ behavior is meant satirically, but the filmmakers aren’t taking cheap shots, or at least aren’t taking only cheap shots; both characters, especially Allie, have layers of self-awareness, self-loathing, regular loathing, and derision. There’s a little Noah Baumbach (and Greta Gerwig) in the movie’s portraiture, and in its editing, which occasionally skips into montages to give its central duo a barrage of hipster-y one-liners (their fashion assessments in a discount store are particularly funny). The filmmaking isn’t as precise as the best episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, but in reducing the quarterlife growing-up crisis to twenty-four hours, ninety minutes, and two characters, Fort Tilden doesn’t require the same level of change or catharsis as, say, a television season. It shouldn’t qualify as a spoiler that a day at the beach with the guys Allie and Harper meet isn’t as idyllic as they hoped – an indication, impossible to miss, that they’re going to have to grow as people, in some direction or another. Everyone starts out young and fresh, and eventually winds up unable to take a simple chill-out beach day – or featuring in a producer-approved rock-star biopic. Sooner or later, you become somebody’s old person.