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Straight Outta Compton (2015)
A Review by: Jeff Turner
Dir: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff.
Produced by: Matt Alvarez, Ice Cube, Scott Bernstein, Dr. Dre, David Engel, F. Gary Gray, Bill Straus, Tomica Woods-Wright.
Starring: O'Shea Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Paul Giamatti.
I listened to an embarrassing amount of Hip-Hop in high school. I was that kid that tried too hard to appropriate a culture that didn’t fit them at all. I had never noticed rap prior, but at that time I was really developing a love for the genre, I liked the way it sounded, I like the way a car’s bass rumbles when you play it while on the road, and I like the way how, when done well it sounds like a great new form of poetry. I was more of an East Coast Hip-Hop guy (Illmatic!), but I knew who N.W.A. were, and I had heard most of their most famous songs. Going into STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, I did not have the experience that many lifelong fans of N.W.A. probably had, but I did still come out having really enjoyed it.
If there’s anything that STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON does with aplomb, it rejuvenates the genre, and has clearly reminded a lot of people why they fell in love with the genre in the first place. There are some parts in the middle where the film begins to slog, but for the most part it’s a lively take on material that could have easily been dead on arrival. There are times when the movie gets political, you can’t avoid that in a film about N.W.A., and those scenes work because the film goes for broke. These moments are fantastic, it’s some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this summer.
The film opens on Compton, with an electrifying police raid on a house where a drug deal was about to go bad. Then we see Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren (O’Shea Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., and Aldis Hodge respectively), all at their own respective low points in life. They perform under the name N.W.A. at local clubs, but that’s at risk of falling apart until E gets in touch with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and N.W.A. finally makes an album together.
They get famous fast, and this draws attention from a multitude of sources. One big draw is the anti-brutality ballad “F- the Police”, and this ends up getting them in trouble with the law, during one fantastic scene where they try to perform it in Detroit. The encounters the group has with the police, sometimes for doing nothing at all, are easily among the most provocative, vivacious parts of the movie.
One aspect of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON that I adored was its strong anti-censorship stance. I am biased, but I appreciated how the film stuck up for the right to freedom of expression, even if the people that wanted to silence N.W.A. at the time were not. The song “F-the Police” is not about hating the police for the sole sake of hating the police, it is about the attitude of a group of people who have been harassed and pushed around by cops, more often than not unfairly, and are finally releasing their rage about it. It’s one of N.W.A.’s more articulate and intelligent songs.
I won’t get too political there (even though I can and probably should), but that’s a good segue into one of the problems I had with the movie. It glosses over some of N.W.A.’s more blatantly misogynistic traits. Surely you’ve heard about the women Dr. Dre beat up in the 90’s, and that is something that is entirely ignored in this film. Surely there had to have been a subtle, nuanced way to develop Dre from this awful person into a man who can actually sustain a family, but director F. Gary Gray doesn’t explore that. Most of the actual bad behavior that N.W.A. perpetrated is glossed over, perhaps the director felt it would have created an unnecessary contrast of tone, and I can understand that. However, Gray comes close to Hagiography at points.
There were other elements of this film that I really enjoyed. I thought the five leads had a great deal of chemistry with each other. If these guys hadn’t had chemistry, that would have been one thing that would have caused this flick to sink like a stone. They do all feel like they’ve known each other since high school. O’Shea Jackson is very compelling playing his father, which is both welcome and kind of creepy. Paul Giamatti is great playing their Judas of an agent, but nobody is surprised that Paul Giamatti can play sleazy well, anybody who has seen Paul Giamatti in a movie has known that for some time. The most notable performance had to have been Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, and granted this may have been because he got all of the flashiest scenes, but I thought he carried that weight quite well.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a film that could have easily floundered but ended up as a success. It deserves the praise it’s getting, because its formula is handled with more craft and care than biopics can often expect. They have greenlit a sequel to focus on Tupac and Snoop Dogg, and before the movie I would have told you that nobody wanted to see a film about Snoop Dogg (I’ve always thought the dude sounded like a predator), but having come out of the film I can see how that would work. This is because Tupac and Snoop both make appearances, I honestly think that a film about them would be pretty cool, like a West Coast Hip-Hop Cinematic Universe. It would be a fresh way to tackle the stale biopic genre. You’ve probably seen the film already, but it’s worth seeing once more.