STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
2015, R, 147 mins.
2015, R, 147 mins.
Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller / Aldis Hodge as MC Ren / O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube / Neil Brown Jr. as Dj Yella / Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E / Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre / R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight /
Directed by F. Gary Gray / Written by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman
I’ve never liked gangster rap.
My exposure to
it during the course of my life has been limited, to be sure, but the
genre always felt too assaultive for my tastes, not to mention that I find
its content and message ethically questionable.
Exploring the world of this musical culture has very little
personal interest to me, but part of the subtle genius of F. Gary
Gray’s musical biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is that it projects this
world that I never found compelling and made it…endlessly compelling.
With an explosive visual aesthetic, superlative lead performances,
and an undeniably immersive sense of time and period, the film taps into
the rise and fall of real life pioneers of gangster rap, and it does so
with a never look back tenacity.
OUTTA COMPTON chronicles the formation of the N.W.A., the California-based
hip-hop group that – between 1986 and 1991 – radically altered the
landscape of popular music and pop culture in incalculable ways.
They put “gangster rap” on the proverbial map and their debut
album (for which this film derives its title from) ushered in a whole new
era of music and lyrics as a headstrong and angry form of commentary
against social injustices that the group saw on a daily basis.
The album made millions and converted millions of followers to the
N.W.A. brand, but the group would be dogged by controversy right from day
one. With ostensibly and
explicitly profane lyrics (which included glorification of drugs,
objectification of women and criminal activity, and a blatant disrespect
for law enforcement), the N.W.A. brand was targeted by politicians and
parental groups for the corruption and perversion of youth culture.
The music was also a rallying cry from the group on what existence
on the streets of South Central L.A. for African Americans was like,
something that the musical scene of the time simply didn’t touch upon.
Their music, both then and – it could be argued – now, is urgent
film constantly reminds us of the atmosphere that existed in the
mid-80’s that helped propel groups like the N.W.A. from relative obscurity to
musical royalty. The film
opens wisely and rightfully with archival footage that gives viewers a
taste of the unseemly and hostilely racist atmosphere that permeated the
streets of Compton, California. It's
on these streets that young men like Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins)
desperately tries to eek out a living and a place for themselves outside of
the ghetto. He hopes that his work as a local DJ will help propel a
future career in more lucrative musical waters.
A sense of grander purpose also hits home for Ice Cube (O’Shea
Jackson Jr, the real Ice Cube’s son, a dead ringer for his daddy), who
pens lyrics daily as an outlet for his ever increasing rage for living in
an world of bigoted police corruption.
Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) hasn’t be able to fully escape the
lifestyle of crime and drugs, even though deep down he knows he’s bound
for something better than being another thug in the hood.
three of these men share the commonality of wanting to use rap music as
the supreme outlet to express themselves and become famous.
The trio decides to give it a go and invites a few friends into
their tightly formed unit – M.C. Ren (Aldis Hodge), D.J. Yella (Neil
Brown Jr.), and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) – in order to get what
would be the N.W.A. off the ground. Eazy-E funds their initial efforts, but soon realizes that
some managerial representation might be in order to help push the group
over the top. He has a chance
meeting with Jerry Heller (a slyly effective – but horribly wigged -
Paul Giamatti) that decides to help Eazy-E and take co-ownership of the
group, and early promoted success in nightclubs leads to the release of
“Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, the aforementioned album that
hurtled the N.W.A. to the unheard heights of popularity and infamy.
Alas, as is the case with many groups that quickly climb the success ladder, creative and financial frictions soon develop between key players
in the group, which could derail any semblance of forward momentum for all
of their careers.
and the makers here do one thing absolutely right: They cast relatively
unknown and unschooled actors in the key N.W.A. roles.
One refreshingly surprising aspect of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is the
raw and unforced chemistry that the ensemble performers have with one
another. You believe that
these men have a life history with one another on screen.
It could be argued that the film narrowly focuses on just three
members of the group, but the character dynamics here are so uniformly strong that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Jason Mitchell is shockingly effective as Easy-E, relaying a man of
not only headstrong drive and ferocious pride, but also of vulnerability and uncertainty
(Mitchell’s early scenes – showcasing some pathetic attempts on
Easy-E’s part to rap in a recording studio for the first time – are
some of the film’s unexpectedly amusing highlights).
Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre also hits the right notes, playing his
rapper with a mischievous charisma. And
then there’s O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing his famous father in an eerily
effective performance, channeling his dad's youthful frustration and
rage while evoking a maturing man that’s also intelligent and savvy.
There is never a dull dramatic moment in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
when these three actors are on screen together.
remarkable as the bravura performances is the film’s sense of period
detail. Movies set in the
1980’s can be set up to appear laughably and flamboyantly garish in how
they present the neon-colored excesses of the time.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is an antidote to such extremes, which is
typified by the murky and shadowy cinematography of Matthew Libatique that
paints a stunningly evocative portrait of the mood and look of the
troubled neighborhoods that the N.W.A. emerged from.
If anything, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON isn't a glossy and pretty
looking musical biopic, per se, nor does it go out of its way to glamorize
the group’s lifestyle as they hit it big.
The N.W.A. were not noble-minded angels in the industry. They habitually abused drugs and alcohol, treated women as
one-note nocturnal pursuits and trophies, and engaged in wantonly
unethical behavior. Gray
certainly seems to have some fun in staging the hedonistic partying ways
of the group (perhaps too much fun), but underneath it all is an
undercurrent of lingering dread that permeates these men.
You always gain an immediate sense in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON that
these boys from the hood – on their unlikely rags-to-riches journey –
will not emerge from it completely unscathed.
best compliment that I could give this film is that – for a work
that’s as fiery and politically charged as it is – it asks audience
members to make up their own minds as to what the N.W.A. stood for and
what they ultimately represented. I
never once felt like it pandered down to me.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is routinely on solid ground when it comments
on how artists are the product of their problematic times and how, via
their music, they try to dramatically echo and transform their world
through the expression of their music.
In covering less that a decade of the N.W.A.s musical odyssey, the
film does cut creative corners, to be sure.
Characters beyond Easy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre are, in essence,
driven out of the narrative spotlight, whereas the very few female
characters in the film (Carra Patterson’s Tomica, Easy-E’s wife) are
monumentally under-utilized and underwritten entities.
And what of the group’s almost arrogantly misogynistic attitudes
towards women in general in their music, not to mention accusations of
gay-bashing and pro-gun violence that typified much of the controversy
directed at them?
Do I like the N.W.A.’s music? No. Do I like what it sometimes represented? No. Do I recommend STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON? Yes. My endorsement of this film is not coming from a place of supporting or appreciating the N.W.A.’s music and what their polarizing lyrics preached; it’s about recognizing the relative quality of the movie that the group populates. Great works of drama are often more compelling when they’re not about squeaky-clean human beings. The brilliance of Gray’s film is that it offers an uncharacteristically inviting and intimate portal into a thorny version of young men trying to attain the American Dream while pushing a whole lot of taboo buttons along the way. I still don’t like gangster rap. I don’t think that I ever will. Yet, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON wisely allows for agnostic hip-hop appreciators like me to perhaps understand where it comes from for the musicians that produce it. That, and as a pop culture time portal and musical biopic, the film is unequivocally engaging, stirring, and dramatically potent…for N.W.A. fans and non-fans alike. That’s this film’s coup de grace.