“Straight Outta Compton” works better if you don’t view it as being about what the trailers are making it out to be: a movie about five underprivileged black youths who through the power of music fought against an unjust system (the police) and ended up changing the world. Think “Selma” with more sex and assault weapons. In reality, this 2 ½ hour odyssey works as a straight-up drama about the bond between friends, fame taking breaking it down. It’s simple, yes, but you’ll never see simplicity effused with so much passion, ferocity, drive or skill.
Beginning the birth of the rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) we follow the small, jerry-curled hairs of Eric “Easy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., playing his father) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), who on the other side of the follicle coin is always wearing a hat. We know right away who’s who in the dynamic of the group based off their different involvements in the Compton lifestyle of a young black man.
Easy is the leader of the group, slinging drugs to get money for initial recording costs, right before the house he’s dealing at is ransacked by a S.W.A.T. team with a tank; Dre is the visionary, who leaves home after his mom scolds him for all this “DJ-ing business!” and; Cube is the poet who looks onward enviously at the rich kids drive home in convertibles while he has to take the dirty bus home, scribbling away at lyrics in his notebook. The other two members, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), though talented sadly aren’t famous enough to get their own introduction aside from “Yo, Dre, you remember my friend…”
Now I’m sure a lot of the young fans sneaking into the back row are mostly watching for the scenes of sex, drugs and more sex (encapsulated in one entertaining shot in a hotel room). But it’s when the group comes together to make music when you can tell why they sold so many records, became so famous and why they got to make this movie in the first place. Watching their time in the studios and performing shows I couldn’t help but be gobsmacked, as the anger of their performances and intuitively of their lyrics are as exciting as any action movie you could come across.
Dre’s beats, Cubes words and aggression, Easy’s smooth, natural rap skills form a spicy, intoxicating gumbo of gangsta rap gold as they stand up to oppression by busting out “Fuck Tha Police”, only to be chased out of the arena by police (if that really happened, I don’t know, but its damn good filmmaking).
There is something invigorating watching Jackson embody the rage of his father’s early years, when after a run in they all had with the cops outside the recording studio, was inspired to write the classic “Fuck Tha Police”. I mean, I say those words when I get pulled over for doing 38 in a 30 zone, as opposed to being victimized for the color of my skin, but still.
Director F. Gary Gray had the good mind of a filmmaker to make sure to blend all this animosity and showcase how the art reflected the reality these men had to endure (pre-Rodney King), mostly through run-ins with the police. Some may claim the villainous projection of the police in “Compton” to be a little harsh, especially when they intently call them “nigger” or seem to get pleasure out of throwing the men to the ground. But this was the late 80’s in Southern California and these were young black men. If anyone reading would like to give us their own, differing story about what that was like, I’m all ears.
The focus on racial profiling, though, works more as a stage setter than an actual plot device, being used to set the tone for why these men rapped about what they did and, more importantly for the film, juxtaposed their own internal conflict within the group. And If you’ve watched any biopic about any group of any kind you’ll know the next phase after success is erosion followed by complete dissolve of the group—usually over some huff about who’s getting more attention/money/women etc.
The same proves true here as the movie goes from the electrifying first half to the dramatic and talkative last. It begins when Cube left the group to go solo, and though the story still features him heavily and tries to wring as much conflict out of it as possible it’s hard to say his life wasn’t vastly better solo than in the group. Despite discovering breakouts megastars like Snoop Dogg and Tupac (in dead-on cameos) Dr. Dre had to deal with even heavier fallout with E, joining the ranks of the beyond-intimidating Suge Knight (R. Marcus Knight). A fine breath of fresh air is granted to a biopic about rap, for when most biopics deal with inter-character conflict in tearful, dramatic pleas; these guys burn one another through hilarious and cold lyrics on the radio. The rap world is truly more interesting than any normal persons.
But down goes the spiral of hatred, and no one had it worse than E. Losing his most talented members to more successful ventures, we see E on his couch, his luxurious home being packed away to settle debts, measuring out weed just to make a little money. He was the member who more than others came closest to going back to the slums after being the leader of such a notorious group. And just when E, in his most reserved and regretful state was on the verge of patching things up with Cube and Dre, leading to a new album with N.W.A., he was diagnosed with HIV.
Hawkins is spot on as Dre and though Jackson did have the benefit of growing up with the real-life character he’s still able to bring to life the aggression and sly-charm of his father. But being the only actor not able to actually sit down with his subject, Mitchell as E is a revelation. Laying on the bed learning of his disease goes beyond “Oh no, I have a life threatening illness!” of other medical-themed ploys. You can feel the utter shock that fuels the tragedy of a life about to be reborn as E silently unleashes the tears, us watching from the hallway of the hospital.
The tragedy was that the subjects of the movie could not live up to overall message of the movie: Unity overcoming separation and victimization. In world raged in constant battle with an authority that hates them, these men proved that despite being on the other side of the social spectrum, and being treated harshly because of it, that you can still fight back while accomplishing your dreams in the process. Though their movie moves through the same channels as many before it, the story of N.W.A. rings with reflection, truth and immense power, proving there are some parts of the 80’s that didn’t suck.