Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)

Posted: August 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Straight Outta Compton” is a movie good enough to make a person who hates rap music (i.e. the author of this review) like the film and respect what the band N.W.A. did to the music industry and, in a larger sense, race relations.  When unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers constantly makes the news these days, it’s hard not to look back on N.W.A.’s song “Fuck Tha Police”, and events like the Rodney King beating, and know that we’re still in the same goddamned place we were almost thirty years ago.  “Compton” serves as a time capsule to point out what has changed (rap is maybe less gangster-oriented and far more mainstream), what hasn’t (racial inequality in the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to how law enforcement chooses to act), and plot a course for how we got from the point A of the late 80s to the point B of now.

Gang violence hasn’t gone away.  One need only look at the Chicago murder rates to know that.  However, it seems that rap music moved away from explicit gangster imagery sometime after the murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, and is now, from the viewpoint of a guy who doesn’t like rap music and only hears so occasionally, about rappers bragging about themselves and/or talking about the accumulation of wealth and sexual conquests.  What “Straight Outta Compton” shows is that, despite the vivid gangster imagery of N.W.A.’s lyrics, the only member who was explicitly in the gangster or drug trade was the late Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell).  Eazy-E, as the film tells it, was somewhat forced by producer Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) to rap to his beat and Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the real-life son of Ice Cube) lyrics, and then became the arguable front man of the band.  Part of Eazy’s front man status is due to him crossing paths with a former manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who had some old connections in the music industry and was able to get Eazy and N.W.A. through the door to get a record contract.

Look, I don’t have much respect for rap artists.  They don’t even need to SING as long as they can talk fast and rhyme.  So, I don’t have much in the way of respect for Eazy-E.  Dr. Dre, though the film and the music industry seem to view him as some sort of musical and entrepreneurial genius, seems to just sample other pieces of music, take some beats that could have come preprogrammed in a Casio keyboard, and call that a musical track, so I have no major respect there.  The only member of this group I can call talented is Ice Cube, who seems to have written most of the song’s lyrics. Honestly, it appears from watching the film, and hearing some of the songs, that the lyrics are the only thing differentiating N.W.A.’s music from any of the other contemporaneous rap music that was out there at the time, so any credit this band gets belongs to Ice Cube. Granted, the film pretty much ignores the members of N.W.A that are not Eazy, Dre, or Cube, and Mc Ren (Aldis Hodge) co-wrote many of the songs in real life, but Cube is the stand out character in the film.

It makes sense that the film elevates Dre and Cube, though.  The real life Dre and Cube are producers of the film, so they obviously had a hand in shaping the film’s narrative.  Why else is Dre’s history of beating women ignored, but a completely superfluous subplot of him meeting his wife is left in the film? Cube seems to play it a little more fairly, as his association with the Nation of Islam and accusation of anti-Semitism are left in the film, along with his responses courtesy of a scene in which he’s interviewed by a reporter.  As for Eazy, well, he’s dead now and can’t voice his version of events, but Dre and Cube clearly want it to be known that they all made up just before he died, and to blame all of the band’s troubles on Heller, who in the film comes across as your general, clichéd sleazy manager from a musical biopic.

So yes, the film is hagiography and follows the clichéd beats of a music bio, from the groupies (all of the women in this film are either mothers, romantic partners, crack whores, or sex objects/groupies…not the most gender forward film, to say the least) to the squabbles about money and publicity, to recreations of infamous incidents, like Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) pistol whipping a guy over taking his parking space.  The film lacks originality from a screenplay standpoint, and its accuracy is questionable given the guiding hand two of the main characters’ real life counterparts had in shaping this film, to the point where one man is played by his own son.

Those quibbles are not small, but the film still succeeds in spite of them because it does two things very well: it clearly shows how rap transformed from music like “The Humpty Dance” to the hardcore stuff we later saw in the works of Tupac and Biggie, and it paints a good portrait of the heightened racial tensions of the early 90s, at the end of the Reagan-Bush era, and how similar they are to the current racial tensions that have birthed the Black Lives Matter movement.  We even get small roles for actors playing people like Tupac (Marcc Rose) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) so that the film can hint at the next generation of rap that came after the N.W.A folks all went on to solo efforts.

It’s odd to watch this film and know how Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are like today. Ice Cube in this film is an intelligent young man who, while never actually participating in gang life, is still the kind of guy to challenge the police when they order him not to play a song, and also the kind of guy to take a baseball bat to a record producer’s office to get his just compensation.  The Ice Cube we know today is the guy who makes bad comedy films (“Ride Along”) and is neutered enough to star in kids’ movies like “Are We There Yet?”  Dr. Dre is probably more well known for the careers he launched and selling those Beats headphones than for any music he made himself.

One thing that also stands out to me is how damned thin-skinned everyone in the film is.  The slightest insult, or even shadow of an insult, inevitable leads to a physical altercation.  Why on Earth are these people so unable to keep their cool?  It’s almost enough to think everyone who grows up in the projects needs mandatory anger management classes.  The need to respond to any slight with immediate violent retaliation is something that seems common in prison (or at least films ABOUT prison) but the characters in this film live that way even when they’re wealthy celebrities.  Luckily, the film gives us Suge Knight because, well, no matter how violent or short-tempered a character in the film may look, no one is as fucking crazy with violence as Suge Knight.  The film actually shows us Suge arranging dog fighting in a recording studio. Dog fighting!

The director, F. Gary Gray, has a mixed track record as a director. He directed the real Ice Cube in “Friday”, a film Cube also wrote and which became a cult classic of sorts. He made the middle-of-the-road “The Negotiator”, “The Italian Job” remake, and “Law Abiding Citizen”.  He made some bad films, like “Be Cool” and “A Man Apart”.  Ultimately, he’s not that good of a director, and “Compton” doesn’t do much directorial-wise to distinguish itself from any other biopic. There is one shot, where Dre is chilling to some music and there are some light lens flares in the corners, to convey a dream-like feel.  Then his mother turns the record player off, the lens flares disappear instantly, and he’s back in the real world.  That scene is visually interesting for about 30 seconds.  Otherwise, there aren’t any shots of angles or anything to distinguish this film from a TV movie visually.

So yes, “Straight Outta Compton” is specifically designed to make Dre and Cube look as good as possible within the generally known knowledge about them in the public sphere.  The screenplay hits all of its beats in the most conventional and Introduction to Screenwriting-ish way.  It treats women poorly, and reduces two of the five members of N.W.A. to practically cameo roles.  Still, as a general cultural study of race relations and the modern history of the music industry, it is in its own way invaluable.  And the film, for its flaws, is entertaining, even if you despise rap music. B.

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