“Straight Outta Compton”
2 hours, 27 minutes
As a child of the 1980s, I was certainly aware of the rise of rap, and especially the aggressive kind of “gangsta rap” that came of groups like N.W.A. and others. But, as a middle-class white kid living in a small town outside of El Paso, Texas, I was much more likely to be into Vanilla Ice than I was Ice Cube.
That said, no one could deny that the music, whether to your taste or not, had a power to it — an immediacy that something like, say, “Hammertime” sorely lacks. As I got older and went to college with a much more diverse population, I learned to appreciate hip hop and rap even more and, though I can’t say I’ve ever sought out an entire album, I’ve been known to include the occasional song from Jay-Z, Kanye West, or even, dare I say it, Snoop Dogg on my regular playlist.
All this is to say that, while I may not have actual hip hop bona fides, this week’s music biopic “Straight Outta Compton” spoke to a particular time in this country that I remember well. If “Selma” was about the beginning of the civil rights era, “Compton” addresses its stalled middle period and shows us the kind of art born of frustration.
The film opens with Eric “Eazy E” Wright, a small time drug dealer on the run from the cops. In turn we meet the other two principals, Andre “Dr Dre” Young, a frustrated young DJ in his early 20s, treading water, and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, a high school kid with a chip on his shoulder and a gift for rhyme.
Cube and Dre are acquainted, with the younger often performing at the club where Dre works. The club scene, however, would prove too confining and after the club owner proves to be no fan of Cube’s aggressive, confrontational style of music, the pair, along with buddies MC Ren and DJ Yella, approach Eazy E to form a record label devoted to this new form of hip hop.
E, tired of the drug game, agrees and even agrees to perform the group’s first single, the Ice Cube-penned “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” The record is an instant sensation and attracts the attention of Jerry Heller, a music manager who had worked with acts like Elton John and Pink Floyd two decades earlier. Heller provides an in to the exclusive world of big-budget music, and the group takes off like a shot. Soon N.W.A. is performing to huge crowds, terrifying the establishment and becoming major stars.
But, as in any music biopic, nothing stays rosy for long. Jealousies, contract disputes, and petty rivalries lead first Ice Cube, then Dr. Dre to leave the group and go off to successful solo careers. Eazy E also goes solo and maintains a strained relationship with Heller. Along the way, we are introduced to the rise of such famous and infamous characters as Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and Suge Knight, the former bodyguard who strong-armed Eazy E into releasing Dre from his contract so the two could go off and form Death Row Records.
“Compton” is a surprisingly good film. I say surprising because the project is spearheaded by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and could easily have turned out as a whitewash of their problematic history. Granted, Dre and Cube come off looking pretty well in the movie, but the movie spends very little time moralizing. What it gives is a fascinating snapshot of a time in this country, especially in Los Angeles, where young black men felt they had no voice. N.W.A. gave them that voice speaking to the authorities what they themselves could not. The film also does not shy away from depicting how nefarious the music business can be, and, like every other film of its ilk, treats us to the lessons of the gross excess that comes with success, and the consequences of that lifestyle.
One criticism that is surrounding this film labels it extremely misogynistic. That’s hard to argue with considering the multiple scenes of naked groupies, sex parties, and the general tone toward women that exists in the music. It’s certainly problematic, but is also a fact of these characters’ actual lives.
What’s hard to read, considering Dre and Cube’s leadership of the project, is whether these scenes are in the film as a “warts and all — that was us and we’re not proud of it” kind of statement, or as “look how cool we were! We got naked chicks!” Female characters in the film have fairly little to do other than a token “mom” speech here and there. And perhaps that was the reality of N.W.A.
I would, however, like to have seen the filmmakers address the treatment of women with clearer eyes. “Straight Outta Compton” is about racial injustice, and yet happily caters to sexual injustice.
The acting in this film is excellent all the way around. Eazy E, played by Jason Mitchell, is the troubled heart of the show and this relative newcomer plays him with a perfect balance of bravado and vulnerability. Similarly, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his own father, Ice Cube, is marvelous. He’s a barely contained ball of rage and Jackson nails it, sometimes looking so much like is father that you’d think you were watching archival footage.
Best of all, however, is Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller. Giamatti feels, at first, like famous old guy casting, where you put some known actor in a role that requires little other than his Oscar-nominated name. He plays Heller, however, as the most complicated character on screen. Seen by some as a villain, by others as a champion, Giamatti’s Jerry Heller is real and perfectly performed.
For a real villain, however, the film turns to Suge Knight, the violent bodyguard turned producer and who fueled much of the East Coast/West Coast war that raged in hip hop throughout the 90s. Playing Knight is R. Marcos Taylor, a former stuntman, who is, at times, absolutely terrifying. Let’s hope he has an agent who can help this new actor avoid a life of straight to video trash and get him up there on the big screen again.
“Straight Outta Compton” is an interesting mix of exactly what you expect, mixed with scenes that far exceed those expectations. It’s not without it’s problems, but then perhaps a film that’s a little rough around the edges is exactly what’s called for.
“Straight Outta Compton” is rated R for violence, graphic nudity and sexuality, and pervasive language. Just like an N.W.A. album.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.