Straight Outta Compton is a lyrical masterpiece: a feat of storytelling that manages to squeeze drama, passion, musical genius and a rags-to-riches biopic into a blistering few hours of searing, soaring film. Cynics will say that it glosses over the negative aspects of its subjects, ignoring their many pitfalls and instead painting them as piously gifted geniuses – but such critics should not be listened to. Transforming such a convoluted and messy tale into cinema this awesome requires some narrative straightening; and the ends most certainly justify the means.
And what an extraordinary tale it is: we’re whisked from the gangbanging streets of Compton to the highs and lows of NWA’s success in a remarkably (and almost detrimentally) short time, carried along by the film’s genuine enthusiasm, love and respect for the group’s music. Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) doesn’t have to explain NWA’s success to us – we can hear the music, and instinctively understand. Social commentary is weaved into the fabric of the film, and initially we move from musical highs to the lows of racial tension almost casually, as if police brutality doesn’t need to be announced or telegraphed, it’s such a typical, daily event. The film lets these events speak for themselves. It’s a subtlety that’s both shocking and effective. As time passes, the commentary heightens, but it’s a steady climb that builds to a deserved crescendo.
This is a film that is strengthened by its 2015 release. The seemingly institutionalised brutality of the police towards the black community in America draws worrying parallels with the USA of today. We watch footage of police officers attacking a defenseless Rodney King in 1991, and our protagonists watch with us, appalled and also hopeful that justice might finally be done. The subsequent injustice, and resulting riots, remind us of footage from riots in Baltimore and Ferguson this year and last. When we see Dre’s Mum tell him how she wants him to succeed, how proud it would make her if he owns a company, we think of the sale of Beats to Apple and the money that he’s made. When Ice Cube’s ego gets too large, when he wants the credit he deserves, we don’t judge him – because we know that he achieves incredible success on his own (a message reinforced by a trailer for Cube’s upcoming Ride Along 2 before the movie). The story, if told without the lens of their success, would be far less emotive and far less believable.
Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) doesn’t have to explain NWA’s success to us – we can hear the music, and instinctively understand.
Ice Cube, real name O’Shea Jackson, is played in the film by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jnr. It may strike you as nepotism – yet Ice Cube (senior) has said that he made his son take acting lessons for the film. The uncanny resemblance between the two is a resounding success, and the acting lessons clearly paid off – the junior Ice Cube is arguably a far better actor, and the film’s first 90 minutes belong almost entirely to him, his performance the glue that binds each scene together. When he leaves the group we know instinctively that they’ll start to fall apart. It’s a first feature role for the 24 year old actor, and may well signal the start of a new acting dynasty.
Elsewhere, performances are strong. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, as Dr. Dre and Eazy-E respectively, are compelling; R. Marcus Taylor, as Suge Knight, is imposing and intimidating. Paul Giamatti’s turn as the group’s manager, Jerry Heller, is more functional than groundbreaking, but serves as a straight and small performance amidst the film’s huge characters. Quick appearances from actors playing Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are unnervingly uncanny. Disappointing are the minimal roles offered for female actors – in this film, women are accessories, there to look at or solve problems, not to be respected or given actual personalities. But perhaps that’s intentional – to these characters, showing your success is everything, and women are portrayed as just another way of showboating.
Sure, the film has some shortcomings. Ice Cube and Dre, as executive producers, come away as the heroes of the piece: Cube a uniquely gifted artist, destined for success; Dre the genius who can have it all if he only reaches out and takes what he deserves (which, of course, he eventually does). Drug use is conspicuously absent, and even when characters are seen to be interacting with or discussing narcotics – be it weighing cannabis, rapping about dope, or talking about ‘slinging rocks’ – the narrative never really goes anywhere. It’s difficult to tell whether this was a ratings decision (hitting a 15 allows the film to reach that coveted teenage market), or one taken simply not to muddy the waters. It may seem shallow and callous, but by limiting the scope of the film’s message, by ignoring seemingly inconsequential parts of the story (drugs; Dre’s child, left behind and soon forgotten in Compton; the casual adultery indicated by the bevy of semi-naked women that adorn every scene; Dre’s arrest for speeding), the filmmakers are better able to focus on the music and the journey of the group and its members, and on life in South LA.
And what music. What a journey. Straight Outta Compton is a film to be heard as much as watched – so go give it a listen.
Images: Universal Pictures International