Review, “Straight Outta Compton” – *** 1/2 stars (out of ****)
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Of course, it’s adapted from a true story, so the facts are a point of public record. Here is a list of disparities between the movie and the real-life story it depicts. Proceed with caution or, you know, just watch the movie first.
“OUR ART IS A REFLECTION OF OUR REALITY.” Damn straight, O’Shea Jackson Sr.-by-way-of-O’Shea Jackson Jr. “Straight Outta Compton” is a sprawling epic, covering the brisk ascent and implosion of N.W.A (they don’t have a period after the “A”), the self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group. The combo, played by some very capable doppelgangers, consists of Ice Cube (played by his son, the aforementioned Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). The other two pivotal figures are early manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and Dr. Dre’s partner at Death Row Records, the remorseless Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job,” the criminally underrated “The Negotiator,” the original “Friday”) and cinematographer Matthew Libatique took great pains to give this story a sweeping visual voice, with lots of cool lens flare and fantastic composition control. It does become fairly clear, fairly quickly, that producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s widow) definitely had a lot of input. To be fair, those two and Eazy-E were N.W.A’s breakout stars, so highlighting their contributions does make storytelling sense. Paul Giamatti, wearing yet another hilarious rug (also, he knows his wigs are hilarious), goes full-bore Giamatti here, chewing up scenery left and right, yet somehow never feeling out of place. This is a big movie, and it’s not afraid to dip a toe or two into melodrama (which it usually earns), so Giamatti’s Heller fits.
The music, of course, is the movie’s secret weapon. In a lot of ways, seeing it in context imbues it with even more power. We understand the impetus behind Ice Cube penning a song like “Fuck Tha Police,” and that it is not a reaction against all police, but specifically the LAPD at the time and their discriminatory racial targeting and profiling practices during Ice Cube’s youth. We understand why N.W.A’s songs became the protest music of choice during the Rodney King riots. The coolest movie soundtrack of the year gives us the origins of West Coast gangsta rap, of course, and we see its evolution first hand, via both N.W.A’s developing music and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s solo work. N.W.A’s music has aged like fine wine. Dre’s beats have an effortless swagger and are consistently catchy (even though he called them “primitive” in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, more on that in a second), and of course Cube, Ren and Eazy-E rock some of the most brutally aggressive flows in the history of hip-hop. Beyond N.W.A and their solo projects, we see hip hop’s future beyond the movie, with appearances by Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and 2pac (Marcc Rose — and yeah, that’s how he spells “Marcc”). We also get to hear a fucking bevvy of great ’80s R&B (Zapp, Cherelle, Parliament, George Clinton). The soundtrack operates as a great primer on the eras and genres it covers. I’m always a sucker for a great soundtrack, so the breadth and quality of the “Straight Outta Compton” songs hooked me pretty quickly.
The weakest moments of the movie DO seem to be the elements that were… micromanaged by the movie’s most famous producers. For instance, in the movie, the Tomica character (Carra Patterson) just kind of appears out of nowhere in the third act, at which point they’re already married (the movie skips their meeting and courtship), and all of a sudden Eazy-E’s a devoted monogamist, after having several scenes not-so-subtly alluding to his sexual prowess (including him getting head in a hotel room from a married woman, him hosting a “Wet-N-Wild Pool Party,” him having a sit-down with Paul Giamatti about needing to slow down his bachelor life, etc., etc.). Like George Carlin before him, F. Gary Gray doesn’t always do transition material.
We get considerably less of an emotional window into the other two members of N.W.A, Yella and Ren. get DJ Yella functions as a kind of low-key comic relief, most memorably in his scenes with the World Class Wrecking Cru –an early pre-N.W.A DJ group that featured Yella and Dre and was led by Alonzo Williams (Corey Reynolds). The Williams character here looks like he’s used way too much Soul Glow and raided all of Prince’s “Purple Rain”-era wardrobe. Anyway, Yella’s character feels slight here (he is, however, the only N.W.A member who enjoys Ice Cube’s classic diss track, “No Vaseline”).
MC Ren, too, is more or less relegated to the background here, although his band mates cite him as being the group’s most talented rapper and writer after the Ice Cube departs acrimoniously in 1990, on the band’s EP “100 Miles and Runnin’,” released later that year, and in the group’s second and final full-length, “Efil4zaggin” in 1991. Ren himself has complained about this. “Compton” also doesn’t really delve into the fact that Ren, Cube, and the D.O.C. wrote all of Dre’s lyrics — but it does show them writing songs for Eazy-E, including the great scene where Dre is inspired to use their rhymes for Eazy-E’s first rap, early single “Boyz In Tha Hood.”
Suge Knight has said the movie was inaccurate in depicting him as being just a thug who intimidated people to get his way, BUT he killed a guy while visiting the set, so… I can’t say I believe anything coming out of Suge Knight’s mouth.
Beyond these supposed character/contribution distortions, the movie’s biggest adjustment comes in how it tackles the group’s attitudes towards women. In his Rolling Stone cover story on Cube and Dre interview (in the August 27th, 2015 issue), Brian Hiatt notes that Ice Cube “seems to channel his younger self, with rhetoric straight out of 1993,” when Cube says, “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like us… If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females. Just like I shouldn’t be jumping to the defense of no punks or no cowards or no slimy son of a bitches that’s men. I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.” Cube is conveniently choosing to forget some of his old N.W.A lyrics: in “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” on the “Straight Outta Compton” LP, he spits: “Now the title ‘bitch’ don’t apply to all women/But all women have a little bitch in ’em/It’s like a disease that plagues their character…” So… it does apply to all women, then, Ice?
In the same interview, Dre is cagey about his checkered history with women: “I was young, fucking stupid. I would say all of the allegations aren’t true — some of them are. Those are some of the things that I would like to take back. … But I paid for those mistakes, and there’s no way in hell that I will ever make another mistake like that again.” The movie alludes to his 1991 assault charges with a throwaway line as his character proposes to then-girlfriend, now-wife Nicole Threatt (Elena Goode). Dre was found guilty of severely beating TV host Dee Barnes in a club in January 1991. Barnes had interviewed Cube after he left N.W.A, and Dre had taken exception to that interview (the cameraman for the interview? F. Gary Gray). The movie doesn’t address allegations from R&B singer Michel’le, his girlfriend prior to Threatt (never seen in the movie), that he broke her nose and ribs and blackened both her eyes at different times. The broken nose apparently required plastic surgery. “Compton” also doesn’t discuss Dre’s alleged assault on his Ruthless Records then-label-mate Tairrie B.
At a Q&A for the film, director F. Gary Gray covertly addressed the Barnes incident, saying it was in the script but ultimately cut out before cameras rolled. An LA Times article addressing the issue quotes this earlier copy of the script, credited in the Times piece to Jonathan Herman, who was hired to punch it up and did have the final say. The other officially credited writers are Andrea Berloff (who wrote the first draft), Alan Wenkus, and S. Leigh Savidge (also a co-executive producer on the project). While Barnes herself is glad that Dr. Dre’s violence towards women was not explicitly shown (because that’s a pretty horrible thing for general audiences to have to witness), she is rightfully upset that “the movie’s timeline skipped by my attack.. Like many of the women that knew and worked with NWA, I found myself a casualty of ‘Straight Outta Compton’’s revisionist history.” Again, the assault was alluded to, but only in the broadest of strokes and for the briefest of moments. For what it’s worth, Barnes considered Eazy-E “the straight shooter of the group,” and is confident that, were he alive, an honest dialogue about the incident would still have been allotted time in the movie.
Hawkins’s cinematic Dr. Dre is clearly intended to be a sympathetic figure, and he is depicted as the most morally upstanding of the three leads. Ice Cube and some cronies trash a Priority Records executive’s office over an advance on his sophomore solo album. Eazy-E starts out as a drug dealer in a bravura opening chase scene, and later on he colludes with Jerry Heller to get a bigger piece of the earnings pie than his band mates. Dre’s biggest sin in the movie is… speeding. Dre deals with family tragedy (we don’t know anybody else’s family members by name until Nicole and Tomica show up) and Suge Knight’s mafioso-channeling business practices, he has the most traditional romantic relationship arc, he is the behind-the-scenes leader of the pack (although Eazy-E is the group’s face). Dre remains a fantastic producer with a great ear for talent, beats, and samples, but his past behavior is far darker than the movie might lead you to believe. Dre is the man most responsible for the sound of some of the best rap music in the last 28 years, and I am not trying to discredit that by pointing out his complicated personal history. N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre’s solo masterpieces “The Chronic” (1992) and “2001” (1999), and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” (1993 — Dre produced and rapped on it) in particular, are some of the best rap albums ever, irrefutable classics on a tier with the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter The Wu-Tang” (1994), the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready To Die” (1994), and 2pac’s “All Eyez On Me” (1996). It’s just tough to reconcile his artistic greatness with his human failings.
When taken as a free-standing movie, and not a historical document, “Straight Outta Compton” makes for a riveting and refreshing watch. When somebody like “Selma” director Ava DuVernay professes her love for the movie, when she can get past the movie’s glaring historical inaccuracies and the real-life character flaws they minimize, I think it’s ultimately okay to assess the movie for what it is, on its own terms. I’m (mostly) judging it for what’s up there on the screen, and what’s up there on the screen is a good movie. What’s left out is ugly, and there’s not getting around that.
In addition to being an involving, layered flick in its own right as a pure piece of drama, with four very interesting central characters (Cube/Dre/Eazy/Heller), “Straight Outta Compton” has something to say, about the plights of both African Americans in general and African American artists in particular. It’s nice to see that it’s such a critical (boasting a 90% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and commercial success ($150 million grossed and counting) domestic success. In much the same way that the “Straight Outta Compton” album opened up a dialogue about race relations in this country, specifically with regard to law enforcement misconduct, the movie stands as one of the few pieces of contemporary popular American art (along with “Selma,” actually) to bring that conversation back to the fore. In a way, “Compton” has captured a grim kind of zeitgeist, arriving as it does on the heels of the recent police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. NWA were not saints, and their cinematic biography does show that, to an extent. We don’t have to agree with their archaic gender politics and outmoded homophobia and anti-Semitism to like the movie, nor should those traits impact the movie’s power as a social statement.
Alex and N.W.A-expert guest critic Dan Carson talk further about “Straight Outta Compton” on the Filmcore podcast episode “Straight Outta Skompton,” 9/23/15.