As a movie fan, this writer enjoyed the trip with Straight Outta Compton. As a film writer, that remains the case with a couple of caveats.
The first two thirds of Compton hit like a fresh breeze before evolving into something more in line with the sonic hurricane of N.W.A.’s music.
Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff find the right tone initially, introducing Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), D.J. Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) as everyday young men with normal aspirations like anyone.
Theirs is the American Dream personified. Given what they would do, all they would accomplish and the baggage that came with it, humanizing them was an extremely important aspect to Compton. No, not all – particularly Eazy-E – were angels, but even he saw the need to abandon the life of a drug dealer and try to work toward something else.
And news reports of assaults on women still taint Dr. Dre’s legacy to this day, but we live in an era where thanks to the efforts of people like David Simon (creator of The Wire), people are no longer portrayed in broad strokes. Ultimately everyone is flawed. The primary problem with Straight Outta Compton is that some of those warts are conveniently omitted.
Still that doesn’t diminish what’s on the screen and at its heart it’s powerful stuff as the audience is given a stark look at what black males in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton endured and still endure at the hands of the police.
N.W.A., as a group, proved to be ahead of its time, taking their experiences and turning them into in-your-face stories and anthems challenging that status quo. They birthed a sub-genre of rap that spoke as the streets for those still living in them.
Compton details their meteoric rise and their seemingly faster fall. That descent came courtesy of money issues and the fact the cash flowed in two directions as opposed to six, including manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). From there the movie reveals yet another flaw in that it devolves into a conventional biopic. Nothing wrong with that, generally speaking.
However, that leads to a missed opportunity. As well-written and intelligent as the script can be, Herman and Berloff could have delved a bit deeper by connecting N.W.A. to current events and circumstances. Few outside of urban areas had been familiar with the extent of police harassment until the advent of camera phones and social media.
The Temptations sang about it in Ball of Confusion and Redd Foxx mentioned it more than a few times in his popular ’70s-era sitcom, Sanford & Son, but elsewhere: crickets.
Still Straight Outta Compton represents a significant entry into the biopic genre. F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job), who has worked with Ice Cube on Friday, shows his familiarity and appreciation for his subject matter with a film that possesses a subversive tone in some regards.
He captures the energy and attitude of the live performances, but more importantly he does the same for them as individuals. Not one performance rings hollow in Compton, but the main triumvirate of Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell take their performances to another level.
Of course it helps that Jackson is Ice Cube’s son and apparent genetic twin, but he makes the role his own. Hawkins and Mitchell paying as full a picture of their characters as they’re allowed by the script. Again: some less savory incidents are left out.
Ultimately, however, Straight Outta Compton is what it should be – intelligent, partially celebratory and completely relevant two decades after its subjects broke through.
Movie: Straight Outta Compton
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Rated: R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use
Running time: 147 minutes
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com