Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton
It’s 1988 all over again, with N.W.A. tearing up the charts. Instead of dominating the billboard, the group is making bank at the box office with their biopic, Straight Outta Compton. Produced in association with founding members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, the film explores the rise and fall of the influential gangsta rap super group N.W.A. While the film features all five members of the group, Dre, Cube and Eazy are clearly the focal points. The first act of the film chronicles the societal upheaval in South Central LA that led to the group finding its voice, while the second act is more concerned with the internal struggles between the big three stars, especially regarding the polarizing figure of Jerry Heller and his financial mismanagement. Both acts are engaging, and the film takes special care in presenting the deceased Eazy E with warmth and humanity. One comes away from viewing Straight Outta Compton with the feeling of having witnessed a eulogy, with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube making peace with their former friend and rival through the medium of film.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
In the mid 1980’s, huge transformations are afoot in South Central LA. The police crackdown on gangs and narcotics have led to a virtual war on black populations and an erosion of the already tense relationship between minorities and the police (which would go on to explode in violence and rioting after the acquittal of four police officers shown beating Rodney King, a black civilian, in a widely televised recording.) The atmosphere of anger and disenfranchisement was being distilled into a new style of music, reality or hardcore rap, which was starting to supplant the more mainstream and innocuous hip hop styles of the early 80’s. Into this volatile atmosphere stepped N.W.A, a group of rappers and artists comprised of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, MC Yella and DJ Ren. These five had very different backgrounds, but united around a common message of protest against society and celebration of elements of urban black street life. The music resonated with both local and national audiences despite its harsh lyrics and controversial themes.
Quickly dominating the local scene and establishing Gangsta Rap as a viable genre, N.W.A.’s front-man Eazy E is approached by Jerry Heller, an agent looking to promote the group and get them a record deal. Many of the members have reservations about Heller’s financial cut and his secrecy concerning contracts with the artists. Despite a hit debut album, internal strife, societal pressure, and personal tragedy threatens to destroy the group just as their star is on the rise.
Straight Outta Compton the movie is much like the album: audacious in its scope, shocking in its subject matter, repugnant in its treatment of women, and all held together by larger than life personalities and irresistible music. As a biopic, the film really manages to capture the polarizing nature of the group. The movie swaggers, revels in sex and violence, and presents a idealized version of its characters and events…just like the music it is based on. All of the things that made gangsta rap so outrageous to mainstream audiences is on full display here. At times, the movie feels like the biggest budgeted music video Dre has ever made. Fortunately, the film often aspires to loftier goals than just celebrating N.W.A.’s infamy.
The first half of the film is a stinging portrayal of late 1980’s LA. From the first brutal sequence where riot police armed with a tank demolish a home in order to break up a drug deal, the movie sets the stakes: South Central LA is a warzone, and the war is between the police and anyone caught being black. Repeated scenes show the police slamming young black heads against the hoods of their cruisers, just because those heads were wearing a do rag or a wide brimmed ball cap. One mesmerizing shot has each of the members of N.W.A. riding through the streets during the LA riots, each witnessing the city tear itself to pieces from separate vantage points. The brutality of the situation was staggering 30 years ago, and it is even more important today when youths like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin are targeted and killed for the same offenses, being young and black, that inspired Ice Cube to write “Fuck Tha Police.”
The Ballad of Eazy E
The aspect of the movie that I found most engaging was the portrayal of Eazy E. E is portrayed as a complex and interesting character, full of bravado in his public persona, but capable of tenderness and doubt in his private dealings. Early on we see Eazy in the recording studio transform from a hard-ass, willing to break a bottle over the head of three singers dissing his city, into a shy and insecure rapper, stumbling over the lyrics to his break-out hit, Boyz n Tha Hood. The two aspects of Eazy’s character are really brought to the forefront by his scenes with Jerry Heller, played to perfection by Paul Giamatti. The two men have almost a father and son relationship, with Heller showing genuine care for Eazy, despite the fact that he is simultaneously stealing from him and the group. Rather than demonize Heller and create a “scumbag manager” stereotype, we get a real story of human complexity from both sides of the equation. It was another excellent touch with regards to Eazy E’s character, who stands out as the real heart of the film.
Revision versus Remembrance
The acting in Straight Outta Compton is pretty universally excellent, despite several of the characters being shunted into the background, and others feeling one dimensional. Dre’s character feels like he has definitely benefited from revisionist history, as his motives are always pure, and no mention is made of the violence, mostly aimed at women, that plagued his career with N.W.A. Its not even mentioned that Dre was serving jail time during the recording of the first album. Instead, the script makes Dre the strong moral center of the piece, always trying to do the right thing. Despite the strong performance of Corey Hawkins as Dre, it does a disservice to the film to have such a white washed character. While nowhere near as obvious, Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s actual son, Oshea Jackson Jr) also feels a bit too heroic. I guess its not surprising, since it is essentially Dre and Cube’s version of events that we are shown.
Reviewing Straight Outta Compton left me feeling conflicted. I loved the movie. The acting was great, the setting was powerful, the story had strong societal and personal messages, and the film also contained some great humor. I was caught off guard by several jokes because I was expecting a film that was going to be somber and deadly serious, but director F. Gary Gray never lets the piece become too moralizing. Its a shame that certain aspects were left absent and that the film made no attempt to address the darker side of N.W.A.’s lifestyle…but I still loved this movie. What it does right, it does perfectly. Having grown up a fan of all of the solo members of N.W.A., especially Eazy E, it was a joy to be able to spend time with those characters again. Straight Outta Compton is that N.W.A. reunion tour we never got to have.