Straight Outta Compton (2015) Review

Not as thuggish as you might think.


Six years since it was announced and five years since production started, it has finally arrived.
Straight Outta Compton is the long-awaited biopic of America’s most influential Hip-Hop act and “The World’s Most Dangerous Group”, N.W.A, directed by F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) and primarily produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre.
Because of the latter details, one should expect omissions, downplays and glossing overs of N.W.A’s more questionable, misogynistic and thuggish behaviours, because inside the film, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella are the heroes of the story and we want to like them, but, outside the film, Dr Dre and Ice Cube have produced a film about themselves which retroactively promotes the crew of which they were once a part. And that’s okay, the film isn’t really about being thugz4lyf. I don’t expect Dre and Cube to vilify themselves, each other or the rest of N.W.A in the pursuit of telling their story.

I really enjoyed Straight Outta Compton, it inspired me to listen to their debut album (from which the film takes its name) several times and read up on N.WA. Listening to the film’s eponymous album afterwards, I can practically feel their anger and frustration with the US Government, the police force and the judicial system. The album still feels fresh, even after 27 years or maybe, more depressingly, the cultural issues of late 80s-early 90s black America are recrudescing and are once again relevant. As a teenager of the 2000s and a young adult of the 2010s, to me, the most surprising thing depicted in the film was not the life of excess or the systemic racism of law enforcement, but the sheer radio airplay that NWA got in the late 80s, they took the USA by storm with their frequently profane but always honest ‘reality rap’ and it is no exaggeration to say that I don’t believe that would ever happen now. Nowadays, the music that gets huge radio airplay is all the same generic, bland, edgeless safety music; the artists are just products which guarantee the passive consumers and the fair-weather fanatics an unhealthy musical menu of diet angst, meaningless feel-good messages and a precisely manufactured & marketed swarm of sycophants.

I wasn’t even born when NWA were blowing up and I’m a metalhead from the south east of England (I guess you could call that the posh bit), so, on paper, a film about a hip-hop group from an American downtown ghetto city in the late 80s should mean almost nothing to me and yet, I loved it. It was powerful, it was immersive and perfectly cast.

1compton

Left to right: Ice Cube and O’Shea Jackson Jr as Ice Cube, F. Gary Gray and Jason Mitchell as Eazy E, Dr Dre and Corey Hawkins as Dr Dre

When I say it was perfectly cast, I mean that for the whole two-and-a-half hours I believed that Corey Hawkins as the idealistic, perfectionist producer with big dreams that was a young Dr Dre. I believed O’shea Jackson Jr’s Ice Cube’s righteous anger at all his

detractors who dared to abuse their power screw him over, Jackson Jr also convincingly spat the vitriolic verses that his father, Ice Cube, penned 25 years previously with the utmost conviction. I believed that Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller as someone who had NWA’s interests at heart and had their back when they needed it but operated in a less than ethical way to cover his own end too. Giamatti never comes across as the oily, scheming corporate snake we’ve seen in many films before this, instead he’s closer to a caring surrogate father figure for five black youths whose fathers are suspiciously absent from the film. Mothers, girlfriends and wives everywhere, but not a single father.

The supporting cast are great too, the prime example for me is R. Marcos Taylor as the apparently sociopathic and always threatening gangster/producer Suge Knight makes every scene he’s in 10x more tense. Even when he’s being seemingly reasonable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was up to something and acting as the devil on Dr Dre’s shoulder.

nwa1

F Gary Gray’s direction of the film never feels intrusive and is almost documentary in flavour; it doesn’t feel like propaganda and decently captures the zeitgeist of the oversensitive late 80s USA. NWA’s live performances within the film feel truly live and are honestly electrifying, like each concert was the group taking a calculated stab at their perceived oppressors. Their disgust towards the white, conservative, censorship crazy people of the USA was something that resonated with me, as heavy metal, the music to which I pledge allegiance, has been met with the same backlash, almost continuously for the past 45 years. In my time, I have seen the damage and pointlessness of arbitrary censorship, so I was right there in the moment when NWA told the press (in the film) that they wouldn’t “be careful with their language” and that their music “reflects our reality…and it ain’t glamorous”. If I have one criticism of this element of the story, it’s that I think it should have been a larger part of the film, as I believe that the controversy they stirred up was an integral part of their story. NWA were a voice for angry black youths who were routinely beaten on by the police and white America did not like that one bit, they weren’t supposed to hear the truth about how the police treated minorities.

Gray does with NWA what Scorsese or Coppola (though less elegantly) do with their (admittedly very white) gangster films, he shows you people who can be ruthless and thuggish but still have redeeming qualities and he keeps you on their side for the whole of the journey. I mention the whiteness of Scorsese and Coppola’s films because it seems to me that white audiences sentimentalise their own criminals and it is rare that we get a film where young, angry black men are leaders and heroes.

The film, in terms of the action, follows the formula of all other biopics that came before it; the moments of inspiration, the fighting in the group, the saturation of sentimentality towards the end etc. I don’t mean this pejoratively, formulae exist because they work. Formulae can be used because the writer/director is lazy and studios want to sell generic products, with Straight Outta Compton, this is not the case.

r-marcos-taylor-suge-knight

The film is not perfect however, it is both too long and too short; too long because at 147 minutes I found myself wondering if it needed to be that long and hoping it would be done about 2 hours in, too short because all of the main characters, especially Dre, Cube, Eazy and Jerry, could have had their own film. In fact I hope for an “NWA cinematic universe” where we see what happens to other characters, such as Tupac and Suge Knight who appear in the film, before, during and after the story of NWA.

As a result of having a huge main cast, all of the characters lose screen time that would have served to flesh out their motivations and life stories in favour of progression. This is understandable, but I feel that the film portrays NWA as Hip-Hop geniuses whose meteoric rise to stardom is met with little resistance, apart from the ineffectual whining of white conservative America.

There was also too much going on, too many characters, too many plots, too many elements, so it was hard to keep everything in mind when so much more stuff was being thrown at you. The infamous Rodney King beating is mentioned and becomes a plot point but is then dropped and barely comes up again, the Suge Knight storyline could have been it’s own film and it never really goes into the specifics of how exactly Jerry Heller screwed the band over, or if he did at all, and, despite Dre ostensibly being the main characters, his plot is a little thin, I would have liked to have seen more of the rise of “The First Hip-Hop Billionaire”.

It’s a long film, with so much going on and there is so much more to say, but I feel I’ve said enough, you’ll either watch the film or you won’t, and either way, you won’t have any regrets about your decision.

Hope you enjoyed reading this.

straight2


Genre: Biopic / Drama / Music

Age Rating: 15

Runtime: 147 Mins

Film Distributor: Universal Pictures

So what do you think? Have a think and let us know in the comments section below.


– Mat

 

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.