Straight Outta Compton
I’m way late to game when it comes to N.W.A., the landmark rap group from the late ’80s that provides the basis for this film. How late am I? I just now bought, and listened to, their “Straight Outta Compton” album a couple of weeks before this movie came out. Yes, I’d sampled some of what Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were laying down in their solo careers when I was younger, but never really got to listening to the group that gave them their start. At the time, N.W.A. felt like taboo for a white teen whose musical taste was varied, to say the least (as well as still developing), and eventually gravitated towards classical music and film soundtracks. Twenty years later, though, it was time for me to really break my N.W.A. cherry, because let’s face it, they are ground zero for modern rap culture, and were influential in a way that is still being felt to this day. Listening to their 1988 album for the first time, that isn’t hyperbole, because the beats laid down by Dre, Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella on that album are tight.
F. Gary Gray’s film about N.W.A., which chronicles the beginnings of the group in 1986 up to Eazy-E’s death due to AIDS complications in 1995, isn’t quite as tight, but that’s not because of the film’s 140 minute run time, because there’s plenty to hold our attention throughout (and plenty that’s been left out, as critics of the group’s misogyny will point out, not wrongly). The problem with the film is that the screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, by the nature of the medium, feels the need to follow the traditional outline of biopic mythmaking, especially when it comes to musicians. We see the beginnings, and the circumstances that led them to music. We see the early success, punctuated by the “discovery” of their talent by others. We see them at the peak of their popularity. And we see the fall, which here, is precipitated by, surprise, money and greed, leading to deep resentments that aren’t resolved until Eazy-E, who was the breakout star, and the moneyman behind the group’s first release, is dying. In that way, the film is, depressingly, like many other films before it. What distinguishes it, though, is the content, and the personalities, it depicts.
Like N.W.A. itself, “Straight Outta Compton” feels like the right film at the right time. Listening to the group’s songs, which Cube and others call “reality rap” in the film, one doesn’t feel like they’re discussing fantasies or wish fulfillment (in some cases) but rather are documenting life as they see it. There’s a full-bore rage against discrimination and institutionalized prejudice in the lyrics by Ice Cube to tracks like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and their notorious “Fuck tha Police” that feels at odds with the musical style by Dr. Dre that can’t be faked, and indeed, the group experienced first hand while growing up in Compton. Look at “Fuck tha Police.” According to the film, the group is standing outside the recording studio where they are recording “Straight Outta Compton” (the album) when police stop and harass them, assuming the worst, and that these guys are up to no good. Not even the band’s white manager (Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti in charming sleaze mode) can get them to back off, although they eventually do. This is where “Fuck tha Police” comes from for Cube, and watching him (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s own son) record it with a fiery anger is thrilling, only matched later in the film when, while on tour, the group is warned by Detroit PD that they will be arrested for singing the song at a concert that night. I’ll give you one guess whether they do or not, and one guess as to what happens next. The predictability of that moment doesn’t diminish it’s power, though; we could easily be talking about here and now, where the sad realities that maintain when it comes to institutionalized racism and fear of blacks speaking out about it, such as in the current Black Lives Matter movement, is alive and well. Predictable as this film may be (both in it’s content, which is based on real life, and the film’s formula), it grabs us from the first frame, and doesn’t let go.
The choice of F. Gary Gray to direct this film should hardly be surprising. Yes, he’s best known for predictable action thrillers like “The Negotiator,” “Law Abiding Citizen” and “The Italian Job” in recent years, but he got his directing career started as a music video director for artists like Ice Cube before turning to features with the Cube-scribed comedy, “Friday.” His next film after “Friday” was the heist film, “Set It Off,” and that’s probably the best indicator of why he should be directing this film. That film, about four black women who turn to robbing banks after life beat them down too far, had both a great eye for action sequences and a social consciousness, a combination which is essential for “Straight Outta Compton.” This film needs someone who can stage an action sequence, as well as tell a character-driven story, and for all of his previous film’s predictability, F. Gary Gray is capable of both. This film starts out with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (played by Jason Mitchell, in the film’s best performance), at the time a low-level drug runner, trying to get paid before the militarized cops (enacting excessive force in the “War on Drugs”) drive through the house in a tank, and Eric barely gets away. The moments of action that punctuate the story, including the aforementioned Detroit concert, and a later scene when Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins), lamenting how far Death Row Records (his solo project) has fallen into chaos, leads the cops on a high speed chase fueled by rage, are essential to the film as we experience it, giving us insight into the people whose story we’re following. Hopefully, this will help Hollywood really take Gray seriously as a filmmaker, and maybe even land him an interview for the director’s chair of Marvel’s “Black Panther” film, if he hasn’t had one already? (Just sayin’.)
Even more than the “Fuck tha Police” moments in this film, there’s one series that really got to me. By this point of the film, Eazy-E, Dre and Cube have all gone their separate ways, locked in a bitter battle of words that spills out into the music, with N.W.A. landing the first blow with their song, “Message to B.A.,” which likens Cube to Benedict Arnold, only to have Cube respond with the vicious “No Vaseline.” In 1991, though, the violent beating of Rodney King seems to bring them together in a spiritual sense, as we see all three watch, astounded, as their art becomes real for millions of people. After a not guilty verdict is levied against the four officers in the King case, the L.A. riots start, and Gray mixes archived television footage with re-enactments as Dre and Cube, independent of one another, drive through the chaos. The look of disillusionment on all three’s faces as they watch these events unfold is a powerful scene, not only because I remember watching the coverage of the riots at the time, but because it’s unnerving to know that similar things are occurring 23 years later in places like Ferguson and Baltimore for the same reasons, even if the circumstances are different. Another film popped into my mind as I got ready to watch this, and it’s Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” In more ways than one, the comparison is just, although Lee’s film is fresher in it’s filmmaking prowess, and more balanced in it’s perspective. “Straight Outta Compton” comes from a more biased place, as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube serve as producers on this film, but that doesn’t diminish the vitality of what we’re seeing. Once again, Dre and Cube have a story to tell, and it’s their story. Hopefully, lightening will strike twice, and they’ll drum up a conversation we so desperately need to have about what’s going on in this country, and how to correct course. Unfortunately, if it’s anything like the one they inspired back in the ’80s, and the one they’re finding themselves in the middle of now, it’s going to be an uneasy ride.