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Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Premise: A dramatization of the rise of rap group NWA whose songs about drugs and street life brought them fame and fortune but also put them in the crosshairs of the authorities.

What Works: Movies about artists must be about something more than the character’s occupation. The work can’t be an end in itself; it must have deeper significance. Straight Outta Compton tells the story of musical group NWA but it is also a coming-of-age narrative and a show business success story. As depicted in the film, the members of NWA came from violent, crime ridden neighborhoods that were patrolled by a militaristic police force. The filmmakers establish the connection between the lives of the band members and the content of their music. From there the movie tracks their rise to the top of the music scene but their background haunts them even in success. The band’s establishment of so-called gangster rap makes them the target of law enforcement and creates an industry that retains some of the worst elements of their home turf. Among the successes of Straight Outta Compton is its impression of authenticity. The moviemakers capture the look of the period and especially the politics of late 1980s and early 90s hip hop as well as the tension between the black community and law enforcement. That authenticity is aided by the casting. The movie has some terrific matches of actors with roles especially among the NWA band members which include O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Jason Mitchell as Easy-E, Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren. Although the screen time is split pretty evenly among the characters, the story is primarily told from Easy-E’s point of view. Jason Mitchell’s performance is a revelation and Easy-E’s story is heart breaking. The supporting cast is equally stellar. Paul Giamatti plays NWA’s manager Jerry Heller and R. Marcos Taylor is cast as Suge Knight. These two men are quite different but they come to represent a similar brand of corruption that seethes within the music industry. Straight Outta Compton is also admirable in its scope. The story covers the origin of the contemporary rap scene and it does so without getting lost in the details. The picture runs just shy of two and a half hours but it never feels that length. Much of the movie has a raw energy befitting its subject and that’s balanced by a deep sense of the humanity of its characters.

What Doesn’t: Straight Outta Compton was made by some of the very people whose lives it dramatizes; it was produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, directed by F. Gary Gray who had previously helmed the movie Friday and music videos for Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and Cube is played by his real life son. The lack of distance between the subject of the movie and its makers compromises the picture and that is most apparent in the story’s omissions. As has been noted in the press, Straight Outta Compton leaves out much of the misogyny of its characters’ lives and work. This is especially problematic for the picture since it heralds NWA for the warts-and-all honesty of their music and then brushes over the uglier aspects of their lives. The same is true in the film’s depiction of law enforcement. Every police officer in the movie is a bigoted bad guy; there is no nuance or complexity in this aspect of the film. In terms of storytelling and filmmaking, Straight Outta Compton is unimpeachable except in the ending. Much of the movie has a cinema verite-like rawness but in its final portion the cinematography and acting performances shift. The movie takes on a more conventional dramatic style and risks turning into a VH1 network special. Straight Outta Compton comes to an effective climax with the bandmate’s reconciliation but the film ends without reaching a narrative or thematic conclusion.

Bottom Line: Despite the fact that this movie treads on becoming a vanity piece, Straight Outta Compton is undeniably well made. The picture tells a story that is familiar as a show business success story but the energy and humanity with which it is told distinguishes it.

Episode: #557 (August 30, 2015)