Dog’s Movie House: “Straight Outta Compton” Compelling, Emotionally Charged Depiction Of The Rise Of “Gangsta” Rap!
Howdy Folks! It’s The Kendog!
I was in high school when NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) changed the face of rap culture, bringing in the hard core era of “gangsta” or reality based rap. I didn’t have to like the music (still don’t, by the way) to appreciate its origins or the cultural effect it had on the American landscape. The new music bio-pic “Straight Outta Compton” profiles the rise and fall of this game changing Southern California based rap group with grit, gusto, and a tone of honesty that sets this apart from other flicks of this kind.
“Straight Outta Compton” delves right into the lives of NWA’s three main members: Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) a DJ working to get his big break, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., looking eerily like his dad) a young poet who vents his anger with powerful and profane writing, and Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) a drug dealer who initially comes up with the money and later becomes one of the signature voices of the group. These three are joined by co-founders MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and together this group rises to change the face of rap in America. Along the way the normal pitfalls of fame await: unscrupulous managers (in the form of Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller and R. Marcos Taylors terrifying Suge Knight), controversy and harassment from the police, the media, and the FBI, and group infighting over money and notoriety. The film traces the dissolution of the super group and the foundation of successful solo careers by both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre while at the same time dealing with the tragic death of Easy- E from aids at the age of 31 in 1995.
In the hands of lesser talents, “Straight Outta Compton” could be just a series of touchtone events put to an NWA soundtrack, but under the watchful and detail-oriented eye of directed F. Gary Gray (“Friday,” “The Italian Job”), this film becomes an emotional epic, propelled by terrific cinematic (if not actually historical) moments that elevate this film into something special.
NOTE : Clip Contains Adult Language!
With a terrific script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, we get to see these characters as people and not just icons. Easy-E could have been just another gangster turned rapper stereotype, but the script, along with Jason Mitchell’s powerful performance, gives him a relatibility that goes beyond the easy thug stereotypes. The same with Cube and Dre: they aren’t from broken homes despite growing up in Compton and they have the love and support of their relatives despite the harsh environment in which they live. Jackson Jr.’s performance as his father is more than just a spot-on imitation; it shows the soul and the intelligence behind the mostly justified anger and rage of a young man rendered impotent by the brutal tactics of the Los Angeles police department. Meanwhile, Hawkins’ Dre is always about the music, creating new sounds and crossing musical barriers, sometimes to his own detriment. Dre’s not soft, but he’s the most well modulated of the bunch.
I found myself very impressed by Giamatti’s performance as Jerry Heller, the group’s first manager and one of the co-founders of Ruthless records. It was his influence and connections that helped make NWA’s first album “Straight Outta Compton” a huge hit. That Heller does wrong by the group over time is never in doubt, but Giamatti (or the writers, for that matter) to make him out to be the stereotypical “evil manager.” To Heller, the only way he can keep NWA going is to see to all their needs, and if that means doing more for his bottom line than the group’s, well that’s just the price of doing business. Giamatti portrays Heller as a guy who admits to skimming but rationalizes by arguing he skims less than anyone else who would be representing the group. It is a complex and mesmerizing performance.
Warning: Adult Content And Profanity!
Also good is Taylor as the hulking Suge Knight, the co-f0under of Death Row records with Dr. Dre. Taylor lets you see the intelligence behind those eyes as well as the thuggish, violent mentality that often dictates the way Knight likes to do business. He is a great example of power without the limits of morality, a thug with a big checkbook.
The only thing that bothered me a bit while watching this film was in the one-sided portrayal of the police department, who all come off like just another gang, only with badges. Their behavior is by and large reprehensible, using the same racial slurs and profanities as the subjects of their so-called “investigations.” Very telling is a scene midway through the film when the group of planted face down in front of their very own studio and thoroughly humiliated by the cops until Heller comes out to straighten things out. Even then the cops treat everyone, Heller included, with such disrespect that it almost defies belief. (In the movie, it is this incident that inspires Ice Cube to write the inflammatory anthem “Fuck Tha Police” that garnered them the attention of the FBI.) Let me tell you, if that’s the way it was in Compton, I can definitely understand the anger. I don’t like the song, never did, but I understand the rage that led Cube to write it.
Aside from that criticism, “Straight Outta Compton” is a terrific film, but be warned: it is full of profanity and violence. It’s very raw and emotional, but if this slice of American culture isn’t your cup of tea, don’t bother buying a ticket. It also helps if you can at least stand gangsta rap as it permeates the movie’s soundtrack. Those of you who aren’t offended by the material are in for something special! So sayeth The Kendog!
4 1/2 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer!
“Straight Outta Compton” is Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.