Movie review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Each of the main characters in “Straight Outta Compton,” a ferocious new biopic about the beginning and the end of the seminal rap group N.W.A, is introduced, needlessly, with his real name and stage name superimposed on the frame. These people required no introduction. For as long as I can remember, they’ve been household names: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren (Okay, maybe not him so much). Yet the conceit is still appropriate, and kind of awesome. Self-affirmation has long been a trope of hip-hop (“I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m the real Shady”), a reactionary genre of music born out of black people being denied personhood by oppressors. That was certainly the case for the 1988 hip-hop album after which this movie is named. Like that album, this film directed by F. Gary Gray is a booming, thunderous celebration of free speech and creative identity.

A bravura opening sequence can be interpreted as the entire movie in miniature. Eric Wright, a.k.a Eazy-E (a great Jason Mitchell), has just retrieved some drugs from behind the subwoofers in the trunk of his car. He enters a nearby home to sell them, and is confronted by a threatening, uncooperative customer. Eazy, significantly shorter than the man, shows no signs of fear. Suddenly an overly militarized police unit breaches the front door with a tank. Eazy manages to get away by breaking a window and jumping across rooftops. Others are not so lucky.

By the time the scene is over — it lasts just a few minutes —  the movie already has linked music and disreputable behavior, has established Eazy as a savvy business man who often gets in over his head, and has depicted an environment inhospitable to real success, specifically, the city of Compton in Los Angeles County. As an escape scene — this is where the “Outta” of the title comes from — it reflects the rags-to-riches journey of the entire group of musicians.

Though the other characters never get involved in criminal behavior, their proximity to it, and the color of their skin, make them complicit in the eyes of the law, and just as susceptible to its unjust violence. A recurring image in the film is of a black character, or several, being handcuffed and slammed onto the hood of a cop car or ordered to lie on the ground for no apparent reason. One such moment inspires Ice Cube (played by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to write an explicitly-worded protest rap about law enforcement. You know which one I’m talking about. The ultimate point of the song, which 27 years later remains a bumping anti-establishment anthem, is that its expletives pale in comparison to the real obscenities that provoked them.

Gray directs the scenes of police brutality with all the requisite social portent, intercutting footage of the Rodney King beating with depictions of the subsequent riots in 1992 Los Angeles. A particularly powerful shot shows rival gangs uniting to confront injustice. But the director is actually more concerned with his characters, with the professionalism and drive of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), with Cube’s righteous fury, with Eazy’s scrappy endurance. The best moments are in the studio. Gray has a knack for depicting the joy and spontaneity of musical creation, moving his camera freely to capture fist bumps, smiles and genuine looks of surprise when Dre spins a particularly nasty groove, or when one character delivers a fiery verse in the vocal booth. The concert scenes are equally exciting.

Part of this has to do with the tremendous charisma of the cast. Each has a magnetic screen presence, almost to the point that the film verges on becoming a hagiography. Gray’s tight framing certainly imbues a sense of myth. The entirety of the frame is often filled by just two characters facing each other down with a primal energy. But the close-ups also render their humanity and fragility. Though Dr. Dre is now a billionaire and music industry mogul, and Ice Cube has had a hugely successful career in music and film, Gray reminds us that they were once young and inexperienced, prone to reckless behavior and blind trust.

Ice Cube was only 19 when “Straight Outta Compton” was released, and Dre was in his early twenties. Their immaturity, and their ignorance of the business aspects of the music industry, is actually the main source of the film’s dramatic tension. Eazy puts too much faith in N.W.A.’s manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who incites dissent within the group by being evasive about contracts. And at one point, estranged from N.W.A., Dre unwisely partners with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), a bully who solves contractual disputes with violence. (The real-life man recently was charged with murder).

The film largely omits the specifics of these disputes, so it is often difficult to gauge the extent to which a character has been swindled. When Cube, an otherwise level-headed character, loses his cool and trashes the office of a record label lawyer who’d promised him riches, we’re asked to rely solely on the quality of Jackson’s performance to feel his indignation. That broad-strokes approach works for the rest of the movie — after all, it has to cover several characters over several years — but it leaves something to be desired in these scenes, even if they don’t ultimately distract from the movie’s gestalt.

This is a big, ambitious movie after all, with a running time of two-and-a-half hours. Thankfully, it is propelled by rousing music and ensuing controversies about lyrics and censorship. By today’s standards, it’s laughable to consider the FBI’s paranoid reaction to N.W.A., which at the time was seen as a potential threat and an enabler of riots. By contrast, modern rap music is far more vulgar and ubiquitous. That’s because N.W.A. capitalized on their reputation as bad boys to fight for freedom of expression.

If any of this movie’s detractors claim that it glamorizes violence, or misogyny, remind them that those same criticisms were levied at N.W.A.’s debut album, missing the whole point: Depiction is not the same as endorsement. Even if Ice Cube, during a press conference shown in the film, says that the group’s offensive lyrics reflect the reality of street life, remember that each member has a stage name, and each abides by a dress code due to an early suggestion from Eazy. I am not denying them the harsh origins of their music, or ignoring the depressing racial strife out of which it sprung. But we can’t forget that these were savvy showmen putting on a show. “Straight Outta Compton” is an inspiring view of the whole performance.

A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Aug. 20, 2015.

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