Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

(l to r) Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown, Jr. (DJ Yella), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ice Cube) in “Straight Outta Compton”
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood; © 2015 Universal Studios.

Does Straight Outta Compton deliver the straight truth about the life and times of the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A.?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

A classic rags-to-riches celeb story, framed by the racial unrest of the mid-1980s, Straight Outta Compton delivers a hard punch in the face to those viewers who never quite understood the hip-hop subgenre of gangsta rap before, as well as a not-so-nostalgic walk down memory lane to those who remember it well.

The movie is based on years of research and interviews conducted by S. Leigh Savidge (Welcome to Death Row) and Alan Wenkus. That research, in turn, became the source material for the Andrea Berloff/Jonathan Herman screenplay that depicts the beginning, middle and end of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. We first meet Eric Wright (“Eazy-E,” played by Jason Mitchell), the dope hustler turned founder/money man/rapper, followed by Andre Young (“Dr. Dre,” played by Corey Hawkins), the dedicated DJ/beat master who incorporated scratching into his mixes, and O’Shea Jackson (“Ice Cube,” played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), the group’s lyricist who started scribbling ghetto poetry in his teens. With Dre’s counterpart Antoine Carraby (“DJ Yella,” played by Neil Brown, Jr.) and rapper Lorenzo Jerald Patterson (“MC Ren,” played by Aldis Hodge), N.W.A. rose from South Central’s “boyz in the ‘hood” to a genre-busting reality rap group that captured the nation’s attention. And all occurring in less than five years before the group imploded due to swindling managers and royalty disputes.

Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, The Negotiator, Set It Off, Friday) opens the film with a proverbial bang. With rapid-fire camera work, Eazy-E attempts to collect his money from some gun-wielding drug lords. But he’s interrupted when a police truck outfitted with a battering ram decimates the place, and Eazy crashes through a window, making a Jason Bourne-like escape over the rooftops.

A few scenes later, thanks to some funding from Eazy’s drug bucks, we see the guys hanging out at a grubby studio, taking nascent steps toward turning into a cohesive whole. Soon, they’re winning over fans at the local club, as well as the shady talent manager Jerry Heller (a white-wigged Paul Giamatti, adding on to his gallery of sleaze ball characters).

Along with the slam-bam opening, Gray delivers the crowd scenes with thrilling spirit. The concert montage, where N.W.A. first catches fire, is marvelous. In the second act, Gray gives us a detailed look at the bacchanalia that infused the over-the-top ’80s, a hedonism fueled by young men who’d never had more than a dollar in their collective pocket. And yet, for all their swagger, the group had no idea how the business world worked. The guys knew all about thugs carrying guns who robbed the local liquor stores. But they didn’t know about the thugs who had no guns. The ones in suits, who robbed them blind without a single bullet.

(l to r) Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Jason Mitchell
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood; © 2015 Universal Studios

The core group of actors — ranging from amateurs to Julliard graduates — do excellent work, particularly in their credible music performances. Stage actor Hawkins gives a sweet, measured take on Dre; Jackson (as coached by his dad), turns in a smart, credible performance as Cube; and Mitchell plays the street-savvy Eazy with an engaging humor. The scene in which he first tries to rap, missing the beat time and again while his band mates hoot and holler, is wonderfully funny. Only much later in the film does Mitchell falter, burdened with too much script and too many overwrought scenes.

Actually, the entire third act slows to a grinding halt. Perhaps in wanting to depict the tragedy of Eazy’s early death to AIDS, Gray loses sight of pacing, with one long-winded scene following another. At 147 minutes, the more the film goes on, the less effective is becomes. Sadly, if Gray had allowed the editing to be as aggressive as N.W.A.’s rap, Straight Outta Compton would have been far more effective.

Biopics can’t help but bring the gloss. In this case, the movie skips over the nastier aspects of hip-hop, particularly in its appalling attitude toward women. Instead, the film uses the extremely violent nature of Suge Knight (a terrifying R. Marcos Taylor) to remind us that the menace wasn’t merely in the lyrics.

(Clockwise from top left) DJ Yella, Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube and Neil Brown, Jr. as DJ Yella on the set of “Straight Outta Compton”
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood; © 2015 Universal Studios

It’s hard to assess what’s more disturbing: the police brutality of the mid-1980s that played a predominant role in inciting gangsta rap … or the fact that two armed policemen were posted outside the movie theater that this reviewer attended. (And note it was just a small, suburban multi-plex, thousands of miles away from Compton.) Given today’s headlines that grimly report one incident after another, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t even have to break a sweat by posing the obvious, underlying question: Has the 30 years between then and now made all that much of a difference?

In all likelihood, this film will provoke a myriad of reactions from pundits, politicians and, of course, the audience. Some may deride, saying “Why dig into an ugly past that’s only going to inflame the fires of today?” Others will applaud, saying, “Yes, let’s keep examining the issue until something finally changes.” It antagonizes. It instigates.

Like gangsta rap itself, Straight Outta Compton will probably do both.

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Rating on a scale of 5 Parental Advisory stickers: 3.5

Release date: August 14, 2015
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Screenplay by: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
Story by: S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff
Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 147 minutes
Rating: R

The trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

Comments

  1. Zone3 says:

    Mrs Gadette,

    It would be unfair to you to say that looking at your picture is that you are a bit out of touch with hip hop. Some people in America don’t like to talk about certain history. NWA was undoubtedly a big part of hip hop history. If the film tells the story of the artist and what they dealt with in order to become NWA as well as how they responded to events that happened during that time, How does that become instigating? Film/Production is very much a art form. You get it from the artist perspective. When it comes to American history some groups of people pick and choose what history should be told and to what detail. If you talk about how bad Hitler treated the jews, talk about how bad blacks were treated in slavery. History is history its not always HIS-Story. Some of the things that were done to or by NWA wasn’t always pretty but it was still part of the history. Telling a story doesn’t always require one to tell it from a perspective of a sunny day in the rose field. I know you are paid to write your review regarding your opinion and you are entitled to that. However I just think you don’t relate to the gangster side of hip hop. However I am sure you relate to a good number of gangster movies and probably gave some really wonderful reviews on some of them that instigate and agitated violence.

    • Dear Zone3,

      Wow. I usually don’t respond to readers’ comments, but in this case, I feel I must. The fact is that you and I are actually on the same page. Please look up “instigate”: Per the dictionary, it is defined as to “bring about or initiate an action.” It is my hope that with this film, people will feel the need to initiate action: against police brutality, against racism, against all the crimes that man is doing to man these days. For all of us who were fairly ignorant about N.W.A. 30 years ago, this movie was just the punch in the face we needed. (And I did indeed say so at the very opening of my review.)

      Please also reread my second-to-last full paragraph: I bring up the armed police guarding the theaters today (horrible that the police department felt they had to), and bemoan the fact that not much has changed in 30 years. Let’s hope that Straight Outta Compton can do what a thousand speeches can’t … “instigate” and/or call to action. And bring about a true and lasting change.

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