By Dan Cava
August 13, 2015
Moments after seeing Straight Outta Compton, I realized that the much-anticipated N.W.A. biopic is actually two movies.
I have my revelation as my friend Jeremy and I sit in his Acura, scrolling through his N.W.A. and Dr. Dre music collection. Jeremy (a Charlotte musician and producer) is trying to quickly acquaint me with the music behind the movie we’d just seen. I’m a filmmaker and college professor by trade, and while I’ve played and listened to music all my life, my white “silent majority” upbringing created a huge ‘80s and ‘90s shaped black hole in my hip-hop experience. For better or for worse (for worse, really), mid-2000s Kanye is where I started.
Back in the Acura, Jeremy pulls up a song off Dr. Dre’s album 2001. From his speakers, a group of male vocalists start to chant as the beat drops.
“All these niggas, and all these hoes in here, somebody here goin’ fuck!”
“Wait a minute!” I said, yelling over the thumping beat of Dre’s seminal party track, “Dre said that in the movie!”
Indeed he had. During one of the many party scenes in Straight Outta Compton, actor Corey Hawkins, playing a young version Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, looks around at the beautiful half naked and fully naked women surrounding him and delivers the immortal opening lines of “Let’s Get High,” not as a lyric but as a line of dialogue. I laughed when I heard it in the movie theater, appreciating the simple raunchy truth of it. But the mostly African-American audience around me roared. Because they knew something I didn’t.
I realized at that moment that Straight Outta Compton is actually two movies. For those like me, unfamiliar until yesterday with the history and the music, it’s a band biopic not too unlike many others. The names, faces, locales, and of course the music have changed, but the pattern is there: rags, rise, riches, royalties, rift, reconciliation. But for many other Americans, like those around me in the movie theater, those who’d clapped at the end of the movie, who’d lived and breathed this music, who’d tracked these artists, those who had perhaps experienced the same bigotry and mistreatment depicted in the film, Straight Outta Compton was something entirely different. In a way, I don’t feel qualified to review the second movie, the one my theater-mates saw, because in my suburban inexperience, I just wasn’t equipped to get everything. But here’s a quick review of the first movie.
Straight Outta Compton is solidly made film that starts off with a bang, rides that wave for an hour, then slows down to an interesting but dramatically quiet latter half. Director F. Gary Gray, most known for Friday and The Italian Job, beautifully recreates late ‘80s Los Angeles, modernizing it just enough to keep the more outmoded elements from being distracting. All of the characters are neatly drawn and perfectly cast, with Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. notably playing a younger version of his own father.
Gray and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) lace the film with a number of potent visuals, each of which serves to bring us into the experience of our three embattled and brilliant young leads. The recurring image and sound of African-American heads smacking down onto cop cars and concrete as police bully and brutalize them is infuriating in all of the right ways. A few well-placed inserts of Rodney King later, and we’re more than ready to yell “Fuck the Police” with N.W.A. during the body-rocking concert scenes. Early scenes of gang and drug violence are expertly counterpointed with a fantastic slow motion recreation of the historic L.A. Riots. During the melee, red and blue bandanas representing the infamous street gangs the Bloods and the Crips are tied together and dangled in front of the riot police. The bandanas expertly and succinctly help us comprehend the complex social hierarchy being enacted, where sworn blood enemies band together to protect each other from what they feel to be an even greater threat. Gray also slyly sneaks in a few lens flares during moments of musical inspiration, highlighting each sonic breakthroughs with a burst of light.
Jonathan Berman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay covers a decade in the lives of the band members, and while N.W.A. consisted of five members at the height of its popularity, the movies wisely focuses on the three most famous members of the group: Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. After a riveting opening scene where a DEA tank interrupts a drug deal gone bad, the movie’s first exhilaratingly rockets us through the formation and early success of N.W.A. The script skillfully weaves together the events of their daily lives in Compton with the creation of their music, as their struggles fuel and at times inspire their burgeoning art. Oddly, and this may just be a manifestation of fact overcoming fun, the movie shifts halfway from a tightly constructed drama of the group’s emerging notoriety in 1980s to a kind of loose chronicle of the band member’s activities in 1990s. When the group is no longer battling society but each other, the feuds and infighting noticeably bog things down. The movie throws contract disputes and personal vendettas at us, few of which are explained adequately enough to help us know who if anyone we should be siding with. Trusts are broken, record labels are formed and abandoned, fortunes are lessened but not completely lost. The history itself carries its own low-level interest and there is a certain general fascination at seeing our boyz in da hood struggle to combine street smarts with the drudgeries of fame and wealth. I guess this is “what happened,” but with the exception of a few powerful moments (Eazy-E’s AIDS diagnosis is very effective, as is E’s split from his longtime business partner Jerry Heller, played by a puffy Paul Giamatti), the movie’s slower second half never rises to the zip to the first. The movie’s ending, which does have a certain poetry upon retrospect, comes very suddenly and at a moment of ostensibly low excitement.
I say “ostensibly” because the ending– the impulsive formation of yet another record label– might just be a clue to the existence of that other movie I was talking about: the second one, the one for those who, like dedicated Christians watching a biblical epic or die-hard comic book fans watching a Marvel movie, already know every facet of the story being depicted. At announcement of every new business venture (Ruthless, Death Row, etc) and at arrival of every soon-to-be household name of hip-hop (Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur), people in the audience around were vocally excited. This was not just the story of their music-listening lives, but perhaps in some ways the story of their lives. They knew these people, these struggles, these songs; and they were seeing all of these things treated with the dignity, the seriousness, and the two and a half hour running time they deserve. As an outsider to this body of knowledge, I was and am tantalized by everything I missed because if the film, the music, and the audience’s reaction are any indication, I’ve really missed out on comprehending a huge piece of the American experience. And I wouldn’t feel that way without this film.
So I’ll say again, as a general movie Straight Outta Compton is a nicely made film with a killer first half and an interesting but not compelling finish. As a hip-hop epic, a dramatized chronicle of a vital chapter of American music and culture, it’s a total triumph. It’s a history of modern black music, told by black people. Straight Outta Compton is a long overdue instance of black privilege at the movies, and that alone makes it essential viewing.
Rating: 4 out of 5