A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2015

RANK: 22

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON jjj
½ 

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.  

STRAIGHT 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 and timely. 

Gray’s 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. 

 

 

All 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. 

Gray 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.  

As 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. 

The 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. 

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