The World’s Most Dangerous Times Created The World’s Most Dangerous Group
F Gary Gray
Set in the gang afflicted neighbourhoods of Compton, California, Straight Outta Compton wastes no time, introducing us to the individuals who would eventually form the gangsta rap group NWA and the daily injustices and intimidation they are subjected to by the police. With aggressive ‘reality rap’ as their only real outlet Dr Dre [Hawkins], Ice Cube [Jackson Jr], Eazy-E [Mitchell], MC Ren [Aldis Hodge] and DJ Yella [Neil Brown Jr] get together to put out a single entitled Boyz N The Hood. The record is a huge success, with people identifying with the cutting lyrics and Motown-influenced sound. As their reputation grows, Jerry Heller [Giamatti] approaches Eazy, offering to represent the group and be the face that “gets them into the buildings to make the deal.” Eazy, acknowledging that the industry would be unwelcoming, takes Jerry’s advice close to heart; much to the chagrin of the rest of the group. NWA’s success kicks off almost overnight and soon they are touring the country but not every city is happy to have the group play songs like Fuck Tha Police, which they believe insights hatred and encourages violence toward the police. Outwardly, the group are going from strength-to-strength but tensions between Cube and Eazy over Jerry’s influence and the lack of watertight contracts proves too much and things quickly start disintegrating.
The first thing to note is the spectacular casting. I wasn’t aware that Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, was playing the role of his father so I spent most of the film transfixed, trying to figure out how they found someone who resembled Cube so completely. Then I found out the answer was genetics but it’s still damn impressive. But the same goes for each role cast, the leads give absolutely mesmerising performances. The camaraderie feels real, the tension feels real, the regret feels real, it’s just a case of a very strong script being delivered by extremely talented, largely unknown actors. Admittedly this does highlight the downplaying of MC Ren and DJ Yella’s presence in the group – which is pretty criminal. I appreciate the drama of Eazy, Dre and Cube’s lives are potentially more interesting for audiences and they are names that people are at least somewhat familiar with, but it still means you’re neglecting the input and influence of essentially a quarter of the group. Then there’s Paul Giamatti who, in my eyes, can do no wrong. Sure, he can feel like he’s just playing the same weasely role over and over but he does it with heart and finesse, that even up until the final confrontation you still believe he may have Eazy’s best interests in mind. In the hands of a lesser actor or someone who played it straight-villain, there would be no room for doubt and you would despise him from the get-go.
F Gary Gray has had a career marked by peaks and troughs. For every decent film he’s made, he’s punched out a turd. And yet every shot, scene and development in this release is masterfully handled. You only have to watch the opening scene to understand that – but I’ll expand more on that later. The cinematography is rich, the editing is brilliantly paced, the soundtrack pounds and flows with period-appropriate tracks, the overall production design, recreating the late 80’s/early 90’s is subtly poignant without feeling overly forced. Covering the battering ram invasions, FBI investigations, the LA riots and the spread of HIV, everything seems to come together so ‘beautifully’ to recreate this very vivid and dramatic time in America’s history.
As much as the award season is always littered with biopics, they are deeply flawed productions. We can all appreciate that certain exchanges may never have taken place and that several elements or individuals need to be condensed or amalgamated for narrative purposes but even the best releases get something massively wrong or simply ignore it outright. In this case, Straight Outta Compton’s biggest (possibly only) misstep is the treatment of women. It’s extremely well documented that several members of the group married, re-married, had kids, paid child-support etc but the fates of these women and the families generated is rarely touched upon. Furthermore, Dre’s outbursts at people like Dee Barnes got him in a lot of trouble and the absence of these elements is very circumspect for an honest tell-all feature.
Parodied rather well in Walk Hard and Chaplin (of all things), there is an awful habit that biopics, wherein scenes laced with familiarity (album titles, famous cameos, label names) characters nonchalantly ask what the next album will be called before someone looks off into the distance, the music swells and the immortal words are uttered. It’s bullshit of the highest order. Anyone involved in any creative process knows that no matter how smooth the process, very few people will announce every good idea like it’s a guaranteed timeless success. Part fan service, it’s an admittedly necessary part of the history of these moments but there’s got to be a better way of conveying the magnitude.
Quibbles aside, Straight Outta Compton is a magnificent and surprising release which is both an impressive example of filmmaking and exemplary storytelling. A lot of biopics, especially ones centred around music, tend to suffer due to the subject matter, with audiences immediately staying away if they don’t like the music (that would be me and country music) but this film holds up above and beyond the music. So whether you enjoy hip-hop or not, this film must be seen.
28th August 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
The story opens in a shady part of Compton in 1986. A young Eazy-E is distributing drugs only to get held up by those inside. Despite his less than intimidating stature, the young man doesn’t back down, knowing that if he returns without the money, he’s as good as dead. Before either party has to back down, a signal is given outside, informing the neighbourhood that a squad of armed police with a ram-raiding armoured car are approaching. Everyone panics, hiding drugs, guns and other illegal items. Eazy bolts around the house, trying to get out before the police burst in. And when the police arrive they arrive hard. The ram takes half the house with it, sending one of the occupants flying. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of how excessive force was deployed regularly by the LAPD on their own soil. And as the film progresses, we learn it’s just the first of many examples.
To my mind, the two absolute standout performances jostle between Mitchell and Jackson Jr as Easy-E and Ice Cube. Mirroring the talent of their counterparts, these two actors dominate the screen whenever they grace it and when sharing time, seem to quietly compete for our attention. That’s not to say others aren’t up to par but for individuals who have had so little mainstream presence, they prove they are more than capable of holding their own.
“Our art is a reflection of our reality”
In A Few Words:
“Easily the best musical biopic released to date, combining compelling artistic conflict with societal outcry, disease and oppression. A true snapshot of American life in the late 80s and early 90s”