Straight Outta Compton full movie review - Cogent chronicle of rise and fall of early Gangsta Rap group despite overtones of hagiography
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and fall of the seminal hip-hop group, N.W.A., who broke on the scene in the mid-80s. N.W.A.
was one of the first hip-hop groups to employ "gangsta rap," a heavily street-infused parlance marked by blunt verbal jabs, often incorporating phrases considered "obscene" in more "polite," white society.
The purveyors of hip-hop (i.e. of the gangster variety) have been criticized for encouraging violence, as often the lyrics involve one threat or another to an intended rival (whether that be a specific individual or a more generic group). Defenders of the genre maintain that "gangsta rap" merely reflects the realities of the street and should be considered "artistic expression" protected by the First Amendment. The reality is that this type of music is nothing more than braggadocio and is very much akin to a violent video game?it is of course up to the "player" or "listener" to recognize that the fictional content of a gangsta rap song or violent video game is exactly that? fiction?and is not necessarily intended to encourage violence in real life.
The story of N.W.A., particularly in its first half, pulls you in just like any good police procedural. There are the three principals, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who come from completely different walks of life, and you want to know just how this diverse crew end up becoming successful in the music business. The first scene is startling as Easy escapes a police raid on a crack house. Dre is determined to follow his dreams despite the fact that his mother feels that he's not being practical by pursuing a career in music. And Ice Cube, a high school student with a notebook of clever lyrics, almost becomes the victim of gang-banger violence, when a thug boards his school bus, pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot some of the students on board.
When a more "professional" group of rappers decline to become involved in the new start-up, Dre convinces Eazy to perform a potential hit song himself. The song, Boyz-n-the-Hood, becomes a big hit, which attracts the attention of Jerry Heller (played adroitly by the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti), who gets the group a contract with Priority Records.
Police harassment is a constant theme in Straight Outta Compton, and when group members are harassed by members of the LAPD outside their recording studio, this inspires Cube to write and record another big hit, "F?k the Police." While members of the band and Heller despise the negative and overly aggressive stance the police take toward the black community, there is never a suggestion that there are any good apples at all in the police department. What's more, given the fact that police officers face ultimate annihilation by real criminals in places like Compton every day, it's understandable that many of them are on edge. The lack of professionalism and over aggressiveness can be justly criticized by rappers like Ice Cube, but there are always two sides to a story?and the juvenile exhortation to "F?k the Police," is certainly not always a helpful one.
Indeed, the reality of a bigger problem than police violence in the black community (i.e. black on black violence) becomes apparent in the tragic scene involving Dre's younger brother, murdered by other youths from his community back home. Indeed, for all the Rodney King-like incidents (overly highlighted in the film), they pale in comparison statistically to the murders that occur every day between members of the same race in the so-called "ghettos" of US cities.
As we reach the mid-point, there's more fascinating stuff especially with Cube's decision to quit the band after claiming Heller is intentionally withholding his contract. Ice Cube subsequently becomes successful as a solo act and a "rap war" ensues between Cube and Eazy, with Eazy claiming Ice Cube is a "Benedict Arnold," and Cube responding with his infamous "No Vaseline" track.
Heller turns out to be the film's main antagonist, with Dre and Eazy also eventually turning against him. The accusations against Heller are perhaps the least convincing aspect of the film; there is a rather lame scene where Eazy's girlfriend is going over the "books," and claims, without any in-depth explanation that Heller gypped all of the NWA artists. In the face of a recent lawsuit instituted by Heller against the film's producers, we'll see who's telling the truth when the lawsuit is over.
The second antagonist here is Suge Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, along with Dr. Dre. Knight is ably highlighted as a thug, when he beats up Eazy who refuses to release Dre from his contract. There's also another good scene where Knight mercilessly beats up a man over an innocent dispute over a parking spot. I suspect however, there is much more to the Suge Knight story that the producers don't let on here.
Straight Outta Compton generally follows the basic history of NWA's rise and fall. But some things are left out to give the impression that the principals were not really such bad guys when they were indeed guilty of some rather noxious bad behavior. Dre's drunk driving is downplayed, a subsequent jailhouse stint is ignored along with a violent assault on a woman, resulting in a lawsuit and subsequent payment. To his credit, Dre has admitted that he did some things in his younger days he wasn't proud of, but it would have been nice to have seen some of those things in this film.
Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., steals the show playing his father in his younger days. The acting generally is quite good and the film covers most of the bases of the NWA history. Even if rap isn't your thing, this is a film worth seeing despite the limitations of hagiography.