Straight Outta Compton (2015) Review
This is a tough one. Straight Outta Compton is an incredibly entertaining film; I cheered, laughed, and got the feels along with the rest of the crowd. I appreciated the relevance of the portrayal of senseless and extreme police violence against the black community, and I felt the anger and disappointment brewing in the room. But after the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that something had been off. Especially when someone with my wife’s background—a white female performing and directing children’s theatre from wealthy suburbs of Los Angeles to Compton itself—was able to walk away saying, “I thought it was going to be a lot harder than that."
What happened, Cube, Dre? How does that kind of response make you feel about what you’ve done here? Of course the fact that you produced and advised on this film adds to its authenticity…but it seems that being so close to the story of your own life may have also caused you to sacrifice some in the process.
Let’s start with the obvious. Here is a photo of early (1989) NWA in real life:
Here they are as portrayed in the 2015 film set around the same period:
1988, the year Straight Outta Compton was released, was not a time of pants hanging off of asses—it was a time of tight jeans. But not only are their dress and appearance misaligned with the reality of the times, their banter is too; period-appropriate slang is exchanged for that which you’d hear on a modern rap record. The crew portray themselves as if they came into the game in their final form. Yet all the guns, drugs and violence seem to be completely watered down. Are we to believe that the only time they pulled out weapons was to scare off an angry boyfriend at a party? Or that the only drugs they dealt with was Eazy-E’s huge stack of weed that he bags as he’s moving out of his house? We’re not stupid.
So let’s pause and think. What could be the reason for leaving the dirt out? Is it a huge oversight on the truth of their own lives? Unlikely. So if it’s deliberate, what’s the benefit? Whatever it is, the characters for the most part come across as lovable and usually justified in their actions.
This leads us to ask what else might be reinterpreted or missing altogether. After all, historical elision is unavoidable in a case like this. But perhaps we should slow our roll. At this point, with these glaringly obvious manipulations, it might be time for us to accept the fact that this can be no more truthful than any other representation of what happened, especially in fictional narrative form. And that’s ok. Sure, members of the NWA and even Suge Knight may have added new pieces to the checkered puzzle of their history—newly revealed conversations, confrontations, moments of humor, etc. But we should be grateful for these added moments and accept them for what they are: representations.
Once we’ve done that, we can hop aboard the train and enjoy yourselves. Ever listen to a parent or grandparent tell a story about their own lives, and you know some of it’s slightly tweaked—or bullshit altogether—but you listen anyway, out of respect and for the sake of your own entertainment? That’s this. Director F. Gary Gray has taken these stories and spun cinematic gold out of them. It helps that he’s no stranger to the crew, having directed Cube on Friday and Dre on Set It Off. Here he takes those relationships and uses them to conduct a set of stunning performances from a nearly perfectly cast group of actors.
We already knew from the trailer that O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks shockingly like his father, but it’s a pleasant surprise that he’s able to nail his constantly calculating mind, his sense of humor, and his outrage. I’ll definitely have my eye on his post-daddy performances. Corey Hawkins gives us a nicely layered Dre as well, combining his trademark mastermind ambition, his stoicism, and his sensitivity into a full character. Finally, perhaps the most surprising and heartfelt performance comes from Jason Mitchell, who portrays Eazy-E in all his trickster glory while still causing us to feel gut punched when he gets the tragic news. The rest of the performances, including Paul Giamatti’s, are also very well done and service the story appropriately. Even the surprise guest appearances are on point.
Come to think of it, that might be the best reason to see this film. We love these personalities. They are becoming almost mythical. R. Marcos Taylor’s Suge Knight is a violent tyrant, and we get no other insight into his character. But do we want or need that? I can appreciate his persona as it is portrayed. It aligns with how we felt about him from Tupac’s death up until the incident where he ran over his friend Terry Carter during the shooting of this film. Let documentaries do the daring dirty work of digging deeper. Here the characters are bigger than life. This film sets their mythology in stone with a new sense of detail and artistry.
But let us never forget that, regardless of its beauty, a monument is only a monument. It can never be the truth.