For as long as it has existed, Hollywood has tiptoed around issues of race, using historical narratives with white saviors to appeal to the broadest swath of the public. Such narratives have been rightly criticized for filtering the black American experience through a white perspective, and for perpetuating a system of white supremacy; even if they bring conservative white folks to the cause of civil rights (an oft-employed justification for the white savior narrative), they still depict blacks as subjects, a dynamic that by definition can never lead to liberation. Movies like The Help and The Blind Side may have won awards, but they perpetuated a losing system for black America.
Straight Outta Compton is a welcome correction to the trend. With its radical racial politics and unflinching, visceral depictions of police violence, the N.W.A. biopic speaks to the racial issues of today, not yesterday, and it’s been a long time coming. In the last few years, the white savior has been systematically reduced from the protagonist of racial films (The Blind Side) to a third-act addition to an otherwise radical film (12 Years a Slave) to an antagonist (Selma). Could Straight Outta Compton be the film that buries the white savior once and for all?
Well, sort of. If the film buries the white savior, it does so by also praising him. It explores the archetype with honesty and compassion, an even-handed approach that feels like a revolutionary act of love in our racially-divisive times. The character in question is Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a savvy music manager who signs N.W.A. early on and serves as their guide on the path to stardom. In early scenes, Jerry offers the protection that his artists need to thrive. When the group is harassed by the LAPD outside of their recording studio, it’s Jerry who steps in and saves the day. He tells the police off, and protects Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre from further violence. He had already been established as a white savior for helping to list the black protagonists out of poverty, but this scene seems designed to further cement his hero status. As a viewer, it’s hard not to feel anything but gratitude for Jerry’s actions, especially since we had previously seen—in several scenes—innocent black men violently harassed by police with no one there to protect them.
But the film continues to revise Jerry’s character, and by extension, the white savior archetype. As N.W.A. gains popularity, Jerry betrays each of the group’s members. He cultivates a close relationship with E, alienating Cube and Dre with lesser contracts and devalued roles in the group dynamic. Each of them tries to convince their leader to drop Jerry, but E is loyal and instead accuses his friends of being ungrateful. Still, it’s worth pointing out that Cube and Dre don’t have a specific grievance against Jerry. They are disappointed to be making less money than E, but their concerns run deeper. They seem to recognize Jerry as a paternalistic figure, and years of harassment by the white establishment has created an instinct of mistrust in white authority figures.
In this case, those instincts prove correct. After the group has disbanded, E discovers that Jerry has been skimming. It’s a key moment because it offers Straight Outta Compton an opportunity to eradicate the white savior once and for all. The white savior has been slowly revealed as part of a system of oppression, and Jerry is the perfect microcosm. He sold himself as a hero (to N.W.A. and us in the audience), but he has now been revealed as a villain and an obstacle to E’s self-actualization and freedom.
But this is where Straight Outta Compton takes a surprisingly compassionate turn. E confronts Jerry with his misdeeds, and Jerry turns desperate. His voice starts to crack, and his eyes water. He admits to the theft but also begs E to forgive him for what he’s done. It’s a brilliant performance by Giamatti, who lets himself look so weak and desperate (I’m not sure many other actors would be so brave) that it obligates the viewer to feel sympathy or, at worst, pity. When E fires him and walks away, Jerry cries out in anguish like a father who has lost his son. Instead of depicting Jerry as a villain, Giamatti turns him into a tragic figure.
Equally sympathetic and damning, it’s the most complete portrayal of a white savior ever committed to film. Like other saviors, Jerry starts out with good intentions but then gets morally complacent. In the end, he uses his good deeds to justify further oppression. “Don’t you tell me I haven’t fucking taken care of you!” he tearfully shouts at E in their parting scene.
This fair and balanced look at the character could be read as a courageous creative choice. It would have been easy—and in a narrow way, useful—for the film to simply vilify Jerry. After the multiple scenes of white-on-black police violence, no one would have complained if Jerry bore the brunt of his race’s mistakes. But Straight Outta Compton refuses to ignore his humanity and instead reveals a peaceful, thoughtful spirit beneath its radical, belligerent exterior. It expresses a nuanced approach to change and suggests that the best way to bury the white savior is to understand him. Not to kill him or shout him down, but to seek peace and justice with moral consistency.
As an explanation for the film’s morally generous portrayal, it’s worth remembering that Straight Outta Compton was made by black filmmakers, unlike other entries in this genre. Films like Ray and last year’s Get on Up feature positive but one-dimensional depictions of the white music manager who helps his black artists achieve mainstream success, but Compton insists on digging deeper, revising the white savior not once but twice.
Maybe the filmmakers’ sensitive approach arises from their own persecution; those who have been often reduced to racial stereotypes may feel more compunction about doing the same to others. Perhaps they refuse to depict Jerry as either a white savior or a white oppressor because they know people are more than one thing. Either way, it’s a brave choice, an olive branch from the marginalized to their oppressors, and a touching reminder of our shared humanity in a system that seems designed to divide us.
Noah Gittell is a film critic and essayist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Washington City Paper, Esquire, LA Review of Books, and others.