Film Review: Straight Outta Compton

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 15.19.06Directed by F. Gary Gray

Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

It’s taken America by storm, netting around $60M in its opening weekend, and it’s already doing the same here. Straight Outta Compton is being talked about as a surprise Oscar contender; I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the shortlist. Set in the late 80s and early 90s, the film details the origins and the explosiveness of gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A, hammering home the uncomfortable truth that almost 30 years later, we’re still talking about the same issues.

Director F. Gary Gray gave himself a plethora of tasks with this release; he not only had to do right by Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella themselves, not to mention their legions of fans, but he had to make sure that the voice he gives through his work to the city of Compton, and the wider African-American community, is justified. That so many people who were there themselves during N.W.A’s infancy – and the Rodney King riots – approve of Gray’s portrayal, proves he has done this difficult, compelling and important story justice.

Yet Straight Outta Compton is not without controversy, fittingly for a film about one of the most notorious groups of all time. We begin in mid-80s Compton, just as N.W.A starts to coalesce; Gray’s opening scene is a masterclass in nerve shredding, as we meet Jason Mitchell’s braggadocious Eazy-E fulfilling his other role, as a dealer. It’s hard to countenance the casual levels of violence endemic in certain places unless you yourself have lived through such times, but Gray makes said tensions both plausible and thrilling, without lessening the emotional impact. Dre – played superbly by the stand-out Corey Hawkins – is introduced as the musical brains behind the group, swiftly followed by O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s vituperative lyrical genius, Ice Cube (yep, son is playing father here).  Scenes of Dre chilling among his records are juxtaposed with shots of Ice Cube encountering street violence in the most mundane of situations, from both gang members and the police. Gray adequately conveys a sense of frustration; these are clever, disenfranchised young men, trapped in a society which thinks little of prejudging them. The narrative really takes off when Jerry Heller (the excellent Paul Giamatti) persuades Eazy-E to let him become N.W.A’s manager. A whirlwind trajectory of the band’s success follows, from the heady days of Straight Outta Compton the album (and the drama of Fuck tha Police) to internal rivalries and Eazy-E’s untimely death at the age of just 31.

So, onto that controversy. Whilst Jerry Heller himself has hinted he might sue, given his portrayal in the film, Dee Barnes (a presenter Dr Dre attacked during his time in N.W.A.) has written a moving response to the absence of her storyline from the movie. Anybody with a passing interest in hip-hop will know it’s not exactly a shining beacon for feminism, and it’s fair to say that women were generally treated terribly by the gangsta rap scene during this time. The film is N.W.A’s testosterone-fuelled, complex story, and that shows; female characters with any depth are rare, though interestingly, that underlying desire of the protagonists to take their moms out the hood is ever present, the Madonna/Whore complex writ large. That Dre’s abusive past – he also abused his then partner Michel’le and attacked fellow rapper Tairrie B, recently apologising for his actions – is roundly ignored in the film is disturbing. If nothing else, Gray could have made Straight Outta Compton even more compelling by at least referencing these uncomfortable acts. The movie does much to show N.W.A. in a different, softer light, helping you understand, if you didn’t already, what would cause this group of young men to make art that is so anti-police. Rap at its heart is about storytelling, and the best stories are always the most complex. By showing us N.W.A.’s human, rather than street, side, Gray has allowed a much needed perspective to come to the fore. By not showing Dre’s mistakes, he has missed an opportunity to further explore the awkward, uncomfortable complexities of even the most talented of heroes.

That said, Straight Outta Compton has undoubtedly connected with audiences, thanks to its naturally dramatic storyline, but also the cast’s fine performances, and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s tight script. Selma director Ava DuVernay took to twitter to share her appreciation for a movie that achieved that rare goal; accurately portraying a time, community and culture that is still well within living memory. Ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is important not just because N.W.A. and its associated members had and still have such an impact on the music industry, but because the very causes that inspired them are still around today.

The soul of the film is horribly relevant still, given the recent shooting incidents in America. Pace-wise, the movie holds its own, which is no mean feat given the proliferation of studio scenes. Gray’s best shot of the whole piece shows the 1992 Los Angeles race riots from Compton’s perspective; it’s hard not to get caught up at this point. If you’ve ever vibed to Eminem, chilled to 50 Cent or sung along to 2pac (Marcc Rose’s cameo is swift but fantastic), you’ll completely lose yourself in this film. As hard-hitting as its protagonists, as imperfect and as flaw-ridden, Straight Outta Compton is incredibly awkward to watch as a feminist. But it’s also bloody good, inspiring and fresh, for a story that’s three decades old.


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