Last year (or earlier this year, depending on how you count), there was a little film called Selma. The film came out at a perfect time, when racial tensions were boiling over and police brutality was a hot topic. It was unflinching in its portrayal of 1960s protests, made to look even more timely while similar scenes were playing out in headlines all over the country.
Alas, things haven’t progressed very far in the time since. Ferguson turned into a war zone all over again with the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, the Confederate flag was made into political kryptonite after a racially motivated church massacre in Charleston, and a presidential campaign rally (For a socialist Democrat, no less!) was shut down by the nascent “#BlackLivesMatter” movement.
Looks like there’s still room for another movie on the subject. Enter Straight Outta Compton.
Here’s a biopic that dramatizes the rise and fall of the pioneer rap group NWA, culminating in the death of founding member Eazy-E (played here by Jason Mitchell). Incidentally, the film was produced by E’s widow, alongside founding NWA members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (respectively played by Corey Hawkins and Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.). On tap to direct is F. Gary Gray, who made his debut twenty years ago with the Ice Cube comedy Friday.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is going to be an overly flattering portrayal of NWA. The band rose to fame and notoriety for being brutally honest, and this picture comes off as more of the same.
Case in point: The film opens as Eazy-E goes to his cousin’s house to sell some drugs. Then a swarm of cops come in with a battering ram, dogs, and military-grade hardware. And I was not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, yes, the police force could be considered excessive and I’d be very curious to see what evidence they were acting on. But on the other hand, we’ve seen for ourselves that these are heavily-armed drug dealers, so maybe all that force is necessary after all.
Though to be clear, the film does not shy away from showing LA cops stopping to harass any black man who happens to be standing nearby. The question is always “What are you charging me with?” and the answer is always “We’ll find out when we’re done searching you.” It’s a flagrant abuse of power that’s sadly consistent with a lot of what we’ve been seeing in the news over twenty years later.
Between that and the rampant poverty, not to mention the gang violence that’s legitimately out of control, it’s abundantly clear why our main characters wrote the music they did and why they felt the need to get out of Compton. Though of course, fame and fortune doesn’t get the cops off their backs. If anything, they’ve graduated from antagonizing the LAPD to antagonizing every damn cop in this country, up to and including the FBI.
But what’s interesting about this film is in how it portrays the NWA and the police as two sides of the same coin. Both resolutely stubborn in how self-righteous they are. Both steadfastly refusing to tolerate any disrespect. Both sides comprised of hardened thugs who can only react to anything with harsh language and violence. So the two sides keep on escalating, and why shouldn’t they? Why should anyone stay quiet when they and those close to them have been so thoroughly abused by those with a badge? And why should the police stand by while a bunch of so-called “artists” advocate matching police brutality with more brutality?
…Oh, right. That whole “First Amendment” thing.
Then we have the whole Rodney King fiasco. The film was very clear in portraying how the Rodney King case affected the members of NWA. Not only did four members of the LAPD beat a man half to death on camera, in plain view, but they got away with it. That couldn’t have been easy, spreading a message to so many people and still feeling like it accomplished nothing. But then the 1992 LA riots happened, as the acquittal was met with widespread chaos and chants of “Fuck tha Police!” So maybe a difference is being made, somehow.
However, that only happens through the first half of the film or so. At roughly the halfway point, the group starts to fracture, mostly over disagreements pertaining to their manager (Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti). What’s interesting about Jerry is that he’s not necessarily portrayed as a bad person — far from it — and it’s very clear that the group owes a lot of its early success to him. The problem (as portrayed in the film, anyway) is that he gave too much credit — and too many royalties — to Eazy-E. Either by negligence or intention, he ignored the rest of the group on the mistaken assumption that E was the leader who could keep the group together. Which brings me to Jerry’s other big failure: He was too used to looking at this as a business. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the whole “gangsta” thing wasn’t an act. These young men all really did grow up on the mean streets of Compton, and they take this whole “respect and honor” thing seriously. Dead serious. Literally.
So the group fractures as Dre and Cube go on to do their own things. And then, instead of going after authority like they have been doing, now they’re going after each other. By way of diss tracks, business maneuverings, and straight-up acts of violence, the former members of NWA are too busy tearing each other down to keep on redefining rap and calling for accountability in law and order. The second half isn’t nearly as socially relevant, and that is a mark against the film. And yet it’s all so interesting because of these characters and their conflict.
If it wasn’t for the “street gang” backgrounds of these rappers, they could never have crafted the songs that made them rich and famous. But getting to be rich and famous didn’t make those “street gang” backgrounds go away. It didn’t get rid of the guns, women, drug deals, police harassment, or the threats of violence — if anything, fame and fortune multiplied all of those things by a million. Which means that now we have ruthless street rats with the artillery, manpower, lawyers, and money to injure, kill, and screw over each other in any number of ways. And they all have such enormous chips on their shoulders that there’s no telling what will set them off or how. It makes for some great tension.
Kudos are due to the entire cast, who turn in far better work than I might have expected. Paul Giamatti is the only name in the cast, and of course he knocks it out of the park (though it helps that this is just a slightly less sleazy version of the character he already played on Rock of Ages). But everyone else in the cast is a relative newcomer and they all play their characters brilliantly. Plus, it was fun to watch different characters drift in and out as the film progressed. I got a genuine kick out of watching Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Jimmy Iovine, Suge Knight, and so many others come along and show how their legendary careers intersected with those of NWA.
(Side note: In case you’re wondering, Eminem and 50 Cent do not appear in this film. They didn’t meet Dre until much later.)
F. Gary Gray did a fantastic job of directing this movie, especially with regard to the visuals. Alongside master cinematography Matthew Libatique, the two of them crafted some incredible shots. Granted, the handheld camera got a touch obnoxious near the start, but it was never so over-the-top as to be a dealbreaker. The editing, however, could have been a bit tighter. There are a couple of scenes here and there that drag on a touch too long, and when Eazy-E is having his final talk with Jerry, I could swear they used the exact same shot twice. But then I remember sequences like Cube’s recording of “No Vaseline”, cutting between him and the reactions of the very people he’s dissing. That was very well done, and no mistake.
What really saves Straight Outta Compton is that all of the characters are presented as deep and complex. Nobody is completely demonized or beatified, they all have something to bring to the proceedings, and it’s always clear why they’re doing what they do. Hell, the cops probably get the worst portrayal in the film, but we can still understand why they err on the side of brutality when we see what they’re up against. Thus the characters are very compelling to watch, all portrayed with such passion and authenticity that it feels like we really are watching history unfold right along with them.
The film has action, drama, sex appeal, heartbreak, and of course, some of the greatest rap music ever produced. Even if the second half doesn’t quite measure up to the first, this is absolutely a film worth checking out. If nothing else, it’s great to be reminded of a time when these were the most dangerous men in America, back before Dr. Dre semi-retired to smear his Beats products on every surface, Ice Cube became a hack comedy actor, and Snoop Dogg became a parody of himself.