In a harmonic convergence unlikely to recur in our lifetimes, two starkly different movies about black life in America ruled the box office over Labor Day weekend.
“Straight Outta Compton,” the creation myth of the rap group N.W.A, needs no introduction. “Compton” received enthusiastic reviews (“generous, vigorous, exuberantly celebratory but subtly clear-eyed” — The New Yorker), and some of its protagonists, such as Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), have prospered mightily since their stripling years of championing violence against police officers and women.
“War Room,” the parallel universe doppelganger of “Compton,” is less well known, although The New Yorker did stage a drive-by review after the movie’s Labor Day success (“the blandness is apparently intentional”). “War Room” is a Christian parable told through the lives of African-Americans living in an unnamed North Carolina town. There is a struggle between black and white, but not in the sense that you think. Elizabeth and Tony Jordan’s hometown is completely integrated. Whites and black work together, play together, and pray together in perfect harmony.
The darkness is Satan. “He is trying to destroy your family,” the Jordans are warned, and indeed the devil is up to his usual tricks. He is fomenting adultery, lying, and drug-pushing, in this case high-end pharmaceuticals that Tony steals from his employer.
Things are different in “Compton.” The drugs of choice are crack and marijuana, though there is plenty of money in selling them, too. The darkness isn’t the devil — it is the white man, dressed in the uniforms of the Los Angeles Police Department, or in the leisure suits of talent manager Jerry Heller, who is depicted as taking advantage of the naive young rappers.
I wonder how many people in America saw both these movies, which have no discernible overlap. I never saw a church in “Compton,” not even when Dre and his crew bury his younger brother. That scene takes place inside an anonymous columbarium. Both movies have soundtracks, so comically disparate that hardly a word or note could possibly be shared. Compare the N.W.A megahit, “[Expletive] tha Police,” (“When I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath/Of cops dyin’ in LA”) with “Warrior,” featured in “The War Room”: “Our weapons are trust, our weapons are hope/In the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.”
So — whose side are you on? I have my finger on the scale. I have always despised rap music, which I think has contributed to the educational and ideological subjugation of black people in America. And I cut the church perhaps more slack than it deserves, because I think it has been a force for good in many lives, including — or especially — in the lives of African-Americans. There is a national holiday in January honoring a black minister who risked his life crusading for civil rights in the 1960s. Maybe you have heard of him.
The final words that flash on the screen at the end of “War Room” are, predictably, “To God Be the Glory/Fight Your Battles with Prayer First.” If you lingered for the post-credits message at the end of “Compton,” it sends you to Comptonup.org. The website extols Compton’s recently elected mayor, Aja Brown, and her plan to transform the town from “the home of gangsta rap” to “the beautiful, thriving suburban city it once was.”
We read: “When she was asked why she chose ‘Vision for Compton’ as her platform, she simply responded, ‘Proverbs 29:18 says, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ ”
Perhaps the two movies have a common language after all.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.