STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015) review
written by: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
produced by: Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, F. Gary Gray, Scott Bernstein & Dr. Dre
directed by: F. Gary Gray
rating: R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use)
runtime: 147 min.
U.S. release date: August 14, 2015
You may have seen the “Straight Outta _______” meme that has made its way around social media leading up to the release of Universal Pictures “Straight Outta Compton”, the biopic directed by F. Gary Gray about the influential and controversial hip-hop rap group N.W.A. that formed in the mid-80s. The meme, which originated from an app created by Beats by Dre, allows you to insert a specific image and/or location, maybe your city of origin or something that you are literally or figuratively “out of”. Many of the results were quite clever and funny. With over 6 million downloads within 24 hours of the device’s launch, it’s kind of remarkable to think how impacting the group remains, especially considering where the group came from and what we see in the news today.
We live in a Black Lives Matter world, one that’s unfortunately not far-removed from the racial-profiling and the dehumanizing police corruption climate that the six talented young men that formed N.W.A grew up in Compton, just south of Los Angeles. Anything can be captured on smartphones now, but there was a time when the only truth about life in the hood came the rappers who lived there, whether we heard them on the radio or saw them on MTV (back when the channel played videos). There have been other movies about hip-hop groups and boyz in da hood and despite “Straight Outta Compton” covering some typical biopic tropes and maybe even glossing over some details, I nevertheless found it to be a revealing, poignant and impacting story – especially for those who never knew it.
The movie opens in 1986, where police raiding the crime-infested streets of Compton with SWAT gear and rolling battering rams were the norm, taking down drug dealers and gang-bangers, while helicopters shine down a spotlight above. If you were a young black man, especially a teenager, you were stopped and intimidated.
This is where we meet Eric “Easy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), who’s been making money for himself dealing and selling drugs. It’s an absorbing and intense scene that sets up the volatile atmosphere of the characters we’ll be following in. From there, we meet the rest of the guys – Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), who immerses himself in soul, funk and Motown records and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) a storyteller who filled notebooks with what he experiences and witnesses around him, providing catharsis for his rage. The teens team up with peers, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.), Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Tracy Lynn “The DOC” Curry (Marlon Yates Jr.) and decide to cut a rap track. After the success of their first single, “Boyz-n-the-Hood” under Easy’s Ruthless Records label, they earn the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who strikes a business deal with Easy that gets the group signed on to Priority Records as he takes co-ownership of the group.
Once the album “Straight Outta Compton” comes out in 1988 and songs like the title track and “F**k the Police” hit the airwaves, followed by an enormously successful tour, N.W.A. goes global, introducing gangsta rap to the world. Their tour across the country is insane – drawing crowds and the standard sex-and-drugs after parties, as well as the ire of law enforcement and the F.B.I. (specifically for the song “F**k the Police”). The coverage we see here is a good reminder of what was going down at the time, while showcasing the ballsy bravado and charisma of the group, specifically Easy E and Ice Cube.
The vibe of the group starts to strain while on tour though when tragic news from back home hits them hard and as Cube starts to realize the deal Easy made with Haller seems like a good deal for everyone but him. As contract disagreements flare-up, the group’s creative environment gets even more stressful when Dre and The DOC get involved with recording for producer Suge Knight (a formidable R. Marcos Taylor), a thug who carries himself like the Kingpin of Compton, while Cube is out making profitable solo records. As Rodney King makes the news, the boys see what they’ve been writing about get global news coverage, while fingers point toward the music of N.W.A. for instigating criminal behavior. With N.W.A. splintering due to money, pride and ego, the rap group gets further and further away from who and what they originally intended to be.
“Straight Outta Compton” is a multi-faceted reunion for Gray, who re-teams with three talents from his previous films: Ice Cube (who co-wrote and starred in “Friday”), Dr. Dre (who provided music for “Set It Off”) and Giamatti (who was in “The Negotiator) and he really feels like the right guy to bring this story to the big-screen. The movie seems hugely important and personal for all involved. It also helps that Gray has cinematographer Matthew Libatique (frequent collaborator with Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee) lensing the movie, giving the film a rich color palette and epic cinema feel. I knew “Straight Outta Compton” was going to be good from the trailer, but I really wasn’t prepared for how good. You want a movie to succeed, but you don’t want to get your anticipation level out of whack.
Well, this one kind of floored me and if I had to pinpoint why, it’s because of some key performances and specific scenes here. Overall, it’s a fascinating story with great music, but – Jason Mitchell embodying Easy-E, O’Shea Jackson Jr. transforming into his father and Taylor playing Suge – these three really stood out from their intro scenes and only continued to impress throughout. With Easy as the heart of the movie, Mitchell had a tough job slowly showing a range of emotions that will likely surprise audiences (well, surprised me at least). Jackson Jr. is Ice Cube. I mean, it’s obvious there would be no other person who could adequately portray Cube (and to say it’s in the genes isn’t quite fair, since Jackson Jr. lost weight and took acting classes for the role), but he had his father down – from his expressions to his cadence. And Taylor’s Suge kind of comes in from the background and slowly establishes himself as the imposing presence of the picture.
It was also cool to see Hawkins as Dre, especially with the movie showing his maturation into a solo artist and producer. We see both a young Snoop Doog (Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”) and Tupac (Marcc Rose, with an uncanny resemblance) come to Dre’s recording studio to lay down their tracks, which shows how important a pioneer he had become to the rap/hip-hop community.
Some of my favorite scenes are with Easy and Giamatti’s Heller or Cube and Heller. There’s some understandable apprehension to a white-haired white dude with some legitimate pull coming in and showing interest in what would eventually be a raw deal – and all the actors in these scenes bring that to the table in a convincing manner. The first meeting with Easy and Heller and then the last one we see – a world of life leaved in between and it shows. Each scene that Cube has with Heller shows us how the crack in the group is splintering wider and wider. Giamatti is fresh off a similar role that he played in the recent “Love & Mercy”, but this one isn’t as one-note and is another role in “Straight Outta Compton” that offers a wide range with subtle nuances. Giamatti’s body language and eye contact (or lack thereof) communicates what Heller is or is not withholding from the group. Considering we’ve seen iterations of this character before, especially from Giamatti, it would be easy to discount what he’s doing here and to that I would say, look closer.
Does the movie cover everything about N.W.A.? Of course not. Does it hold up Easy, Cube and Dre, the most charismatic figures of N.W.A. as heroes? Not quite. None of them come across as squeaky-clean. Does it gloss over how these guys were misogynistic and violent? Yes and No. There are several scenes with scantily clad or topless girls at parties – hey, that’s the environment – but, the movie also shows these guys holding down relationships, even working to provide for their families. There’s also a scene where a raging Cube visits the office of Priority Records executive Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington) and tears it up with a baseball bat over financial disputes. So, it’s not all hero-worship, but since both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are producers, it’s understandable that their personalities are not going to be destroyed. That’s understandable.
It’s also easy to see how not every member of N.W.A. is going to get equal screen time. Even though the movie runs a little over two hours, that still doesn’t give ample time to give fleshed-out characterization to six characters. I get that and see how this movie can’t possibly cover everybody and everything that went down, but what screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff do cover is potent, revealing and engaging for viewers. I definitely wanted to know more about the real-life characters I saw these actors play on-screen and that’s a sign of a good screenplay, some fine performances and well-paced directing.
What I noticed I appreciated right away about “Straight Outta Compton” is how it shows where these guys are from. I’m not just speaking geographically, I’m talking about where they’re coming from. Gray shows us what specifically they had to endure in their daily lives and also once they started recorded. We see young Cube on a school bus witnessing an imposing gang-banger intimidate fellow classmates, saying, “Ya’ll better gang-bang them books”. We also see Cube getting manhandled by police just because he’s walking out of a friend’s house one night.This was their life and it’s something that many viewers will relate to, even today sadly. It needs to be shown.
I especially liked seeing was how the harassment from the police wasn’t just from white LAPD, in fact that point is somewhat emphasized. These guys may have had a hit record and signed on with Heller, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be physically and verbally harassed by local police. The movie shows that and it shows how the group channeled their experiences and what they saw into lyrics for their songs, whether it be to tell it like it is or to retaliate. These are the kind of necessary revelations that draw the audience closer to the characters and their story. Besides being electric and entertaining, the characters have to pull us in and they do here.
As I already said, this movie surprised me. I was taken aback at how good “Straight Outta Compton” is, how entertained and into it I was. Some of my favorite movies transport and immerse me into an environment that is foreign to me and yet expose and connect me to the lives of others. That’s what this movie can do, if you let it.