Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Parental Discretion Iz Advised: Straight Outta Compton

Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O'Shea Jackson Jr. in Straight Outta Compton.

Here’s a film I never thought I’d see. While seminal rap posse N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes, for the uninitiated, made up of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and others) made their careers – and changed the rap genre from the inside out – by describing the harsh reality of their South Central Los Angeles upbringings, that same shocking honesty wouldn’t seem possible in a film produced by the rappers themselves. Would they really be willing to show the seedier parts of their rise to wealth and cultural significance? Would they be willing to throw it all out there, the way they did with their music, warts and all? Well – sort of. Director F. Gary Gray takes the conventional prestige-type approach to his unconventional, prestige-averse subject, which means we get a depiction of the genesis of g-funk and West Coast gangsta rap that humanizes and softens and even lionizes its contributors, but – and this is no doubt due to the real Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s involvement in producing the film – it also forgets, omits, or otherwise glosses over many of the group’s less flattering pieces of history. It’s a biopic with excellent casting and strongly realized performances that wants less to tell the truth of N.W.A’s challenging story and more to act as a time capsule for posterity: a loving self-written paean to their massive cultural impact and not a cutting exploration of the problems and contradictions that defined their lives and work. But I’ll get into those in a bit.

Straight Outta Compton is strongest in its first half, when the group’s reality was reflected in their music, but, like N.W.A themselves, runs out of steam after Ice Cube leaves the group and the film becomes a formulaic rags-to-riches biopic story, which jumps through time in an almost montage-style fashion. The raw tension of the opening scene, which shows Eric Wright, a.k.a. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), engaging in a drug deal gone south, is full of the primal paradoxes of late 80’s Compton life: people wearing gold chains while sitting in a crack den, who follow strict rules of ghetto decorum but are ready to kill at a glance, who spend their lives glamourizing the unglamourous. This balance of harsh reality and macho posturing is at the heart of what makes N.W.A’s music so fascinating, and it fills the film with that same electric energy – which is why it’s disappointing when the film lapses into scenes featuring nothing but endless contract disputes, money troubles, and the kind of contradictions that would come to define them, but which make for much less engaging cinema (one of the final shots of the film, for example, shows Dre checking his Apple stock). Really – and for reasons other than cinematic pacing – the film could, and perhaps should have ended at the sequence depicting the group’s arrest at a Detroit concert in 1989, where they performed “Fuck Tha Police” in spite of the wishes of local authorities. This was N.W.A at the height of their powers, inciting feverish crowd enthusiasm that boiled over into public riots, which spoke more to the reality faced by those who identified with their music and less to the music itself, which was just a conduit for this deeply felt rage.

O'Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton.

Ice Cube once told a reporter that he was a kind of reporter too, the difference being that he was brutally honest. While the same can’t necessarily be said of Compton, it can certainly be said of its cast. The film’s performances aren’t the kind of lookalike imitation pantomime featured in so many other biopics – they are raw, energized, and captivating. Watching O’Shea Jackson Jr. play his father is shockingly surreal, to the point where I experienced several moments of uncanny disorientation and briefly believed that some long-lost footage of Cube had somehow been dug up and used in the film. Jackson Jr. nails Cube’s ferocious anger at the injustice of Compton life and how this anger provided moments of pure inspirational brilliance, like the flashback to a Crip who boards his school bus at gunpoint and delivers a “motivational speech,” or a police shakedown that’s so draconian, it immediately inspires the group’s most incendiary song. Dr. Dre’s depiction by Corey Hawkins has the aura of something carefully pruned: he’s painted as the quiet soulful artist, whose dedication to the music outstrips his ability to cope with the industry’s machinations. He cries several times in the film (and is generally very good at it – the scene in which he learns of his little brother’s accidental death back in Compton while he’s on tour had me crying along with him) and I couldn’t help but feel that it was an odd character choice. Does Dre, who has spent a lifetime cultivating an image, genuinely want to supplant that image, replacing the hard-edged gangsta mogul with the sensitive, tortured artist? It’s easy to see how such a depiction would stroke his ego, but I find it hard to believe he’d be that willing to tear down the façade he’s spent decades building. Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge as DJ Yella and MC Ren are pushed to the sidelines, in the film as in real life (which irritated me, given my fondness for Ren’s often under-appreciated contribution to the group’s sound), which leaves Eazy to round out the trio of main characters. Jason Mitchell’s varied, gripping performance is a delight to watch, and gives Eazy more colour and likeability than I would have ascribed to him based on what he brought to N.W.A’s output (he always seemed to be the most disingenuous member to me: his rapping was the weakest, and his posturing the most laughable). Mitchell makes him the only group member with actual hands-on experience in Compton’s dark side, which makes his inclusion not only ceremonial, but necessary; for the others, the music was their way into the game, but for Eazy, it was his way out. What becomes irritating, despite these finely-tuned performances, is the way the film structures the story around Cube, Dre, and Eazy so that it feels less like a biographical account and more like a cheap and cliché gangster movie about three friends pulled apart by fame and success.

Paul Giamatti, playing Ruthless Records manager Jerry Heller, puts in some good work, too, but his inevitable betrayal of the group’s interests is a jarring tonal shift. Heller’s self-serving sleaziness isn’t telegraphed in the early parts of the movie, where he seems invested in the importance of N.W.A’s message and his role in exposing it to an audience. When each member in turn rejects him, Giamatti’s pathetic, desperate response inspires an odd sympathy, not a feeling of relief or justice. If a viewer isn’t aware going into the film of Heller’s financial embezzlement and mismanagement of the group, they might be confused by it – especially because the script frequently glosses over the details of Heller’s suspicious contracts. I think the stronger supporting performance comes from R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight, who seduces Dre away from N.W.A into starting the Death Row label. His appearances are few but powerful; he projects a dark, intimidating presence, often shot in low angles with a thick cigar wreathing his bearded head in smoke, like some kind of Rap Mephistopheles. I understand that the real Knight took issue with his depiction in the film, which may have something to do with the alleged crimes for which he’s currently facing charges, and it’s easy to understand why: Taylor makes Knight into a figure of Machiavellian evil, beating a man nearly to death for daring to park in his spot. His character serves as a stark reminder to the still-young rappers of N.W.A that the music business can be just as brutal as the streets they left to pursue it.

Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller in Straight Outta Compton.

For all its “realism,” though, Compton suffers from a very bad case of selective memory. It pays significant lip service to N.W.A’s history of provocation, for which they faced heavy media pressure to censor or tone down the verbal vitriol that made them famous (which they of course dismissed out of hand). But the group and its individual members, especially Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, continue to field allegations of misogyny, homophobia, and abuse to this day which are largely discarded in Compton. This makes sense considering Dre and Cube’s involvement in shaping their depictions in the film, but is an important point due to the way the film depicts women: they are shown as objects of sexual conquest and as avatars of the hedonism that followed N.W.A’s explosive success, and rarely as characters with important things to contribute – even Dre’s mother is played as overbearing. Other signposts of the emerging West Coast scene like Snoop Dogg and Tupac make appearances (and even the East Coast gets a shout-out, when Wu-Tang is played in the club where Ice Cube and Eazy reconnect), but Yo-Yo is barely mentioned, despite her massive contribution to Cube’s solo efforts, and TV presenter Dee Barnes pointedly doesn’t make the cut at all – and so the film would have you believe that her brutal beating by Dre, which marked a significantly dark moment in his personal history and the legacy of the group, never even happened. I understand why the producers wouldn’t want their dirty laundry aired so publicly again, and have their time capsule sullied by uncomfortable truths, but you’d think if they wanted to sidestep this stuff, they would make a greater effort to make sure their film contained as little misogyny as possible – or at least supported the true history of positive female influences on the lives of these men.

Perhaps most troubling of all are the heated pokes Compton takes at police brutality that are lost in the fog of the latter half of the film, which is dreadfully disappointing since it’s the most continually relevant thing the movie has to say. The United States’ recent instances of racial discord in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere prove that pretty much nothing has changed since the 1992 riots inspired by the beating of Rodney King, which is shown in the film to have an impact on the emotional states of Cube and Eazy – a direct consequence, in their eyes, of the rising cultural tensions that their music brought to the surface. This is why the film’s most powerful moments – the moments in which N.W.A takes to the stage, and brings these real-life issues to a boil – are so important, and why it’s such a shame that they’re not made the focus. The summer of 2015 (not to mention the upcoming awards season) would surely benefit from a film so seemingly purpose-built to deliver this message.

For all its lost potential, though, Straight Outta Compton is still one of the more skillfully-made biopics I’ve seen, and uses its ensemble cast to extraordinary effect. I can bemoan its lack of brutal honesty – a hypocritical element for the movie to have, given Cube’s aforementioned comments, which is both deeply frustrating and perfectly emblematic of N.W.A in its entirety – but without the blessing (and inevitable creative involvement) of Ice Cube and Dre, it probably never would have happened. I’ll have to be content with a biopic that, at its best, is a fiery, kinetic, and memorable tribute to the origins of gangsta rap, and at its worst a by-the-numbers prestige story that suffers from amnesia. That inherent contradictory nature couldn’t be more true to the place that spawned “Gangsta, Gangsta” and “Fuck Tha Police”, and for that, at least, I think Straight Outta Compton deserves my props.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.


  1. Good review. Makes me want to see the film, which wasn't the case before I read this.

  2. I had to look up "paean". Thanks for that! Great review.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen! It's well worth a watch, even if you're not familiar with NWA (and, who knows - it might make belated fans of you yet).