Does Straight Outta Compton deliver the straight truth about the life and times of the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A.?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
A classic rags-to-riches celeb story, framed by the racial unrest of the mid-1980s, Straight Outta Compton delivers a hard punch in the face to those viewers who never quite understood the hip-hop subgenre of gangsta rap before, as well as a not-so-nostalgic walk down memory lane to those who remember it well.
The movie is based on years of research and interviews conducted by S. Leigh Savidge (Welcome to Death Row) and Alan Wenkus. That research, in turn, became the source material for the Andrea Berloff/Jonathan Herman screenplay that depicts the beginning, middle and end of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. We first meet Eric Wright (“Eazy-E,” played by Jason Mitchell), the dope hustler turned founder/money man/rapper, followed by Andre Young (“Dr. Dre,” played by Corey Hawkins), the dedicated DJ/beat master who incorporated scratching into his mixes, and O’Shea Jackson (“Ice Cube,” played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), the group’s lyricist who started scribbling ghetto poetry in his teens. With Dre’s counterpart Antoine Carraby (“DJ Yella,” played by Neil Brown, Jr.) and rapper Lorenzo Jerald Patterson (“MC Ren,” played by Aldis Hodge), N.W.A. rose from South Central’s “boyz in the ‘hood” to a genre-busting reality rap group that captured the nation’s attention. And all occurring in less than five years before the group imploded due to swindling managers and royalty disputes.
Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, The Negotiator, Set It Off, Friday) opens the film with a proverbial bang. With rapid-fire camera work, Eazy-E attempts to collect his money from some gun-wielding drug lords. But he’s interrupted when a police truck outfitted with a battering ram decimates the place, and Eazy crashes through a window, making a Jason Bourne-like escape over the rooftops.
A few scenes later, thanks to some funding from Eazy’s drug bucks, we see the guys hanging out at a grubby studio, taking nascent steps toward turning into a cohesive whole. Soon, they’re winning over fans at the local club, as well as the shady talent manager Jerry Heller (a white-wigged Paul Giamatti, adding on to his gallery of sleaze ball characters).
Along with the slam-bam opening, Gray delivers the crowd scenes with thrilling spirit. The concert montage, where N.W.A. first catches fire, is marvelous. In the second act, Gray gives us a detailed look at the bacchanalia that infused the over-the-top ’80s, a hedonism fueled by young men who’d never had more than a dollar in their collective pocket. And yet, for all their swagger, the group had no idea how the business world worked. The guys knew all about thugs carrying guns who robbed the local liquor stores. But they didn’t know about the thugs who had no guns. The ones in suits, who robbed them blind without a single bullet.
The core group of actors — ranging from amateurs to Julliard graduates — do excellent work, particularly in their credible music performances. Stage actor Hawkins gives a sweet, measured take on Dre; Jackson (as coached by his dad), turns in a smart, credible performance as Cube; and Mitchell plays the street-savvy Eazy with an engaging humor. The scene in which he first tries to rap, missing the beat time and again while his band mates hoot and holler, is wonderfully funny. Only much later in the film does Mitchell falter, burdened with too much script and too many overwrought scenes.
Actually, the entire third act slows to a grinding halt. Perhaps in wanting to depict the tragedy of Eazy’s early death to AIDS, Gray loses sight of pacing, with one long-winded scene following another. At 147 minutes, the more the film goes on, the less effective is becomes. Sadly, if Gray had allowed the editing to be as aggressive as N.W.A.’s rap, Straight Outta Compton would have been far more effective.
Biopics can’t help but bring the gloss. In this case, the movie skips over the nastier aspects of hip-hop, particularly in its appalling attitude toward women. Instead, the film uses the extremely violent nature of Suge Knight (a terrifying R. Marcos Taylor) to remind us that the menace wasn’t merely in the lyrics.
It’s hard to assess what’s more disturbing: the police brutality of the mid-1980s that played a predominant role in inciting gangsta rap … or the fact that two armed policemen were posted outside the movie theater that this reviewer attended. (And note it was just a small, suburban multi-plex, thousands of miles away from Compton.) Given today’s headlines that grimly report one incident after another, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t even have to break a sweat by posing the obvious, underlying question: Has the 30 years between then and now made all that much of a difference?
In all likelihood, this film will provoke a myriad of reactions from pundits, politicians and, of course, the audience. Some may deride, saying “Why dig into an ugly past that’s only going to inflame the fires of today?” Others will applaud, saying, “Yes, let’s keep examining the issue until something finally changes.” It antagonizes. It instigates.
Like gangsta rap itself, Straight Outta Compton will probably do both.
Rating on a scale of 5 Parental Advisory stickers: 3.5
Release date: August 14, 2015
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay by: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
Story by: S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 147 minutes