Directed by F. Gary Gray.
2015. Rated R, 147 minutes.
O'Shea Jackson Jr.
Neil Brown Jr.
R. Marcos Taylor
Marlon Yates Jr.
Lisa Renee Pitts
This is one of the more difficult films for me to review. It’s not because this is some complicated mind-bender. It’s a pretty straight-forward biopic. My troubles stem from all of the baggage I brought with me into my first viewing. I like to go into movies pretty cold. That was an impossibility for this one. I simply know too much going in. To write a good review, I will have to wade through, or fight off, my own prior knowledge of the group and focus solely on what transpires during the runtime of Straight Outta Compton. Wish me luck.
Once upon a time a rap group from Compton, California took the world by storm. Defiantly named N.W.A., short for Niggaz Wit Attitudes, they brought what would soon become known as gangsta rap to the forefront of American consciousness. They were made up of Eazy-E (Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Hawkins), Ice Cube (Jackson Jr.), MC Ren (Hodge), and DJ Yella (Brown Jr.). This film chronicles their rise and fall. Specifically, we cover the period beginning in 1986, just prior to their formation, ending shortly after Eazy’s death in 1995. Immediately, we are submerged in the world as it was in and around Compton during the mid 1980s. The very first scene gives us the right look and sets the perfect tone. More than that it shows us everything we need to understand the group. It depicts a drug deal about to go bad, ending the group before it ever started, until the police randomly show up. This scene only features Eazy, but encapsulates so much of what we’re about to see. Intro scenes for Dre and Cube follow, and off we go.
Acting is a more important factor in biopics than perhaps any other genre. These are generally movies without a ton of special fx, over the top humor, or other distractions. That means whether or not the actors are believable in their roles is front and center. When it works, like with Jamie Foxx in Ray, everything else seems to fall into place. When it doesn’t like with Flex Alexander in Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story, you have an unmitigated disaster on your hands. Thankfully, the roles of our three main characters are perfectly cast. Jason Mitchell is outstanding as Eazy-E. He humanizes his character to a degree never before seen. The prevailing image of Eazy had been that of a stone-hearted thug who fell into the rap game. There is that aspect to him, but there’s much more. Mitchell gives us all of that and is never off his mark.
Slightly less appreciated, but no less impressive, is O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube. This is the most pivotal role in the film for viewer buy-in because Cube is still hugely relevant in pop culture with a currently running string of box office successes. Most of us feel like we know the dude. Jackson Jr. does an exemplary job. He’s good enough to make us believe he’s the real thing. Of course, he has the advantage of being the spitting image of his character. I mean that as literally as I can possibly say it. I’m sure you’ve notice he is a junior, meaning he was named after his father. In case you somehow missed the memo, his dad is indeed the real Ice Cube. I haven’t decided if I think this was an advantage or a burden. I can see it both ways. On one hand, the look and mannerisms needed to effectively play the role are probably all natural to him. On the other, how much pressure must there have been to get your father’s entire persona just right in a movie he helped develop, no less. That pressure never shows as Jackson Jr. nails it.
As Dr. Dre, Corey Hawkins is the weakest of the three principles. Don’t get me wrong, he is very good. He just comes across as a little bland next to the work put in by Mitchell and Jackson Jr. The film’s other standout performance, unsurprisingly, comes from vet Paul Giamatti as group manager Jerry Heller. He is terrifically slimy as only Giamatti, and apparently Heller, can be. Even during the early parts of the film where he’s helping our heroes rise to stardom he makes us put our guard up. Right away, he’s that guy who just started hanging around, but gives us a bad feeling. By the end, he more than justifies our instincts.
Where Straight Outta Compton succeeds most is in making our heroes heroic. It does this by playing up the “us against the world” atmosphere that surrounded the group. Everyone is out to get them: the LAPD, the FBI, Jerry, and eventually Suge Knight (Taylor). It paints the group as young men fighting back against the victimhood so many others are willingly trying to thrust upon them. As viewers, we find it easy to get behind them. Who doesn’t want to root for someone they can clearly see being persecuted for things beyond their control (like skin color) while simultaneously being swarmed by pariahs. The drawback, minor in this case, is that the film is so relentless in its construction of their nobility, there is little room left for their errors. The only mistakes they seem to make are misjudging the people they choose to keep around them. This is what leads to every problem they have throughout the film.
Pacing both a plus and a minus. Even though SOC is almost two and a half hours long it feels tightly packed, moving along briskly. The runtime flies by with hardly a dull moment. It’s near impossible to not have fun watching the crew go from forming to creating songs to performing in front of huge, enthusiastic crowds, and all the craziness that happens around those things. The problem that arises is that it makes the movie highly episodic as we constantly bound through time. The bigger issue is that people on the periphery of the group, and even some within the group, get lost in the shuffle. If you come into SOC completely cold on the group and its history, you leave still knowing nothing about two of its member, MC Ren and DJ Yella. You may not be sure whether The D.O.C. (Yates Jr.) is a part of the group, or not. He isn’t, but the movie never makes that clear. Eventually it tries to use him for a big, emotional moment, but fails because he’s never more than another guy in the room. You certainly won’t know that another minor character, Arabian Prince (Brandon Lafourche) was actually a founding member. Other characters float in and out of the movie for no other reason than just having them show up. It’s a cinematic version of name-dropping as Snoop Dogg (Stanfield), Tupac Shakur (Rose), and Jimmy Iovine (Sherman), among others, hastily enter and exit the stage.
Most lost in the breakneck speed with which we travel through the group’s history are the women in their lives. For the first two acts, particularly the second, we’re inundated with scene after scene of the guys cavorting with an assortment of female groupies and hangers-on. During the last act they suddenly have wives and/or devoted girlfriends who play a major role in their individual affairs. At least they do in the affairs of Eazy and Cube. We’re not shown any such person in Dre’s life. To be honest, the less said about Dre and women, the better, in this post anyway. Who these ladies are and where they came from is a complete mystery that goes unsolved as they literally materialize out of nothing and are never explained. The absence of how and why our heroes came to trust them is a void that, if filled, could add even more depth to the men on the screen.
Despite the speed at which we move through their collective, and later, separate lives we care about the group and the relationships within. Ultimately, this makes SOC a highly successful film. It is a feel-good story that we can’t deny. We rally around their cause (freedom of speech), root against their enemies (Heller, Knight), and hope they can patch things up before it’s too late. We have a blast with their music because regardless of how we felt about it before, the added context of the world that created them makes songs that might seem vulgar and obscene for the sake of being so into battle cries of the downtrodden. N.W.A. becomes a group merely raging against the machine designed to crush them. Because of that we align ourselves with them and get caught up in their fervor. Regardless of the film’s flaws we want to scream ‘fuck da police’ while cruising down the street in our six-fo’.