In a tumultuous year where riots erupted over police brutality and the discrimination against black people, here comes a film that seems to take the zeitgeist by the throat and stand up in an industry notorious for its own discrimination. You know there’s a vein waiting to be tapped when #BlackLivesMatter protesters interrupt a political speech by the progressive and well leftist Bernie Sanders.
There’s an anger brewing in this country (one that’s been there for two hundred years really) that threatens the white privilege that comforts the majority of this country while simultaneously threatening the prosperity of minorities. As if to answer the voice of the deprived and beaten, Straight Outta Compton pulses with energy and raw emotion that both acknowledges and encourages its audience to fight back against powers holding them down.
But even if the film wasn’t politically charged, it would still be buoyed by sheer entertainment. Based off the controversial rap ground N.W.A., the film is propelled by their music and often plays like a music video, featuring naked woman and bling and all. Clocking in at 147 minutes, the film flies like the best of Scorsese. For a film full of anger there’s a balancing plethora of humor and joy and humanity.
So much of the gangster rap genre is based off posturing and braggadocio to the point that it would have been easy to portray the film’s subjects as caricatures. Case in point is Eazy E, a caricature in his own right. He’s known for his dick that’s always itching and give-no-fucks attitude, but here comes off as a tragic figure. He’s the ultimate trapping of his own success, first as a drug dealer then as a successful rapper. He seems to be cruising by on life until money woes and health problems hit him square of the face. The former is a result of a greedy manager that screws him over, the later over his own ego. All of this is good on paper, but none of this would have been sold without the talent of Jason Mitchell. He nails the mannerisms and high pitched whiny voice of E (like I said, he was his a walking caricature) but he also breathes an air of insecurity and self-doubt that was missing from his larger than life image. The power of the performance hit me when E, who has been diagnosed with HIV, looks the doctor in the eye with tears down his face, and says, “But I ain’t a faggot.” Just looking at his face I felt a twinge of sorrow. But what really struck was Mitchell’s voice, which nailed the naivety and bigotry but also sadness. It’ll be a crime if he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
It would also be a crime if I didn’t mention the other two major performance of the film. Corey Hawkins plays the introverted and all about the music Dr. Dre, while O’Shea Jackson, Jr. plays Ice Cube (interesting to note that he’s also playing his father). Both actors perfectly capture their real life counterparts, but are also just plain to fun to watch. O’Shea is given many memorable moments as both the main writer for the group and later the antagonist of the group. I couldn’t get past how much he resembled his father, to the point that he disappeared in the role. He also is charismatic enough that we can see hints of the popular actor that Cube would later become. Hawkins has less to work with, mainly being the guy behind the scenes, but there’s a quiet dignity to him that instills the belief that Dre was all about the music and not the life style.
The only actor that seemed out of place was Paul Giamatti, who plays the greedy manager. He seems to be on cruise control, coming off as too much of a caricature of a bad manager. Part of the blame is that Giamatti has played this character many times before (even one this year with Love and Mercy) and I couldn’t decide if it was it was meta baggage that soured the performance or if it was just Giamatti’s acting. Maybe it was just the stark contrast of the performances all together.
I started off this review mentioning the film’s anger over police brutality, and for a good first half of the film, this anger fuels that narrative. We see the rappers get stopped by the police as they’re standing outside the studio. A black cop calls them gangsters. White cops arrive and the rappers are told to lie on the ground with their hands behind their backs. An argument ensues. When the whole affair is over, Ice Cube runs back into the studio and writes the notorious anthem “Fuck Tha Police.” It’ll serve as a battling cry for black youth and later white people who attend the group’s concerts. When the group plays the song live in Detroit they’re arrested and a riot ensues.
Needless to say, all of this couldn’t be any more relevant. Just when the conversation in America began to insist that equality was on the horizon (electing a black president no doubt shaping this) there was the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The shocking murder was just the first (at least on the major news radar) in a string of scandals involving the death of black people that has resulted in the aforementioned #BlackLivesMatter movement.
I mention all this, because if it wasn’t for these recent events, I would have never believed the depictions of racism and police fascism. The cops in this film are painted with pure hatred. They bark orders at neighborhood citizens, scowl at the rappers as they threaten to arrest them, hurl racist insults. I kept asking myself if the film was going too broad until the film depicted the Rodney King beating, and it all clicked. It’s hard as a white male to fathom such bigotry and evil, even after seeing this brutality filmed. That the filmmaker F. Gary Gray is able to express this anguish is a triumph in a white dominated film industry.
Another moment of disbelief was when the film opened with a drug deal about to go sour. Eazy E is about to get shot when a scout warns that a battering ram is coming. And I shit you not, a fuckng tank with a metal rod jutting out of the front of it bursts through the front wall of the house. The whole thing seemed like dramatic artifice until I read a tweet by Ava DuVernay (a Compton native by the way) who said she remembered those battering rams.
All of this frustration with racism is brought to a head when the group records the fateful song “Fuck Tha Police.” Up until that point there’s so much raw emotion that the second half feels so deflated. It’s as if the film had no idea what to do with it. Eventually the group breaks up. Ice Cube launches a successful solo and acting career. Eazy E dies. Dr. Dre starts his own label with Suge Knight, then starts another label after that. There’s so many bullet points to hit and so little narrative weight.
It’s a common problem with biopics. How faithful to real life must you be? How much are you obligated to show? Most entries in the genre aim to show everything. Straight Outta Compton is one of these. And yet this isn’t the only way. A current trend is to show a small time frame of the subject matter–Lincoln and Selma come to mind. How much focused and powerful would this film have been if it had centered on the political message of the group. How did “Fuck Tha Police” affect their careers, their lives, and their message?
The film addresses none of this. Ice Cube vanishes from the picture after Eazy E dies and Dr. Dre breaks off from Suge Knight in an isolated final scene that could benefit from motivational buildup. I was particularly struck about how the film sidestepped any real criticism of the characters. For example, the misogyny of their music is completely ignored.
For the record, I love that song. But good god are the lyrics ugly. That Eazy E would later contract HIV gives the song a bitter twinge of hindsight. His hyper masculinity and objectification of women are ripe for examination. But the film sidesteps this very issue. A major reason for this stems from fact that the original members of the group produced the film (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E’s widow). What could have been nuanced character studies of these flawed human beings is instead turned into the heroization of their music. Which is fine. If anything, N.W.A. are a time capsule of that era and culture. Their music would go on to the shape the genre for a decade, turning the hip-hop from a celebratory nature into a violent and ugly nature. While it captured the voice of the oppressed, it’s disingenuous to ignore its warts. Especially when it displaces women and homosexuals.
Despite all these criticisms, there’s still so much energy and joy on display that I can only say the film is a triumph of tone and acting. Audience members clapped when they heard “Bye Felicia!”. They rapped along to “No Vaseline”. They were dead silent as Eazy E laid in a coma with a tube down his throat. While Straight Outta Compton fails to really explore the effects and legacy of their music, it perfectly captures what made it so popular in the first place. And honestly, that might be just what this country needs. When so many souls are feeling lost and unheard, they need art that will let them escape. It’s like seeing Dre early on in the film lying on the floor with his headphones on and his eyes closed, lost in the groove of the music. Life may go on, but for that fleeting moment we are free.