Straight Outta Compton (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Aug/150

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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Looking to escape from the oppressive environments keeping them down - Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre start tinkering around with beats and spitting some rhymes in the hopes of making it to the big leagues.  Success comes hard, and it comes fast, but what will this mean to the rest of the world?  F. Gary Gray directs Straight Outta Compton from a screenplay written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and stars O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, and Lisa Renee Pitts.

Just another show for the pressMorgan Freeman provided a convenient sound-bite for people looking to criticize the existence of Black History Month a few years ago. Those who use the quote omit some key expressions from Freeman’s original response, most notably that, “Black history is American history.” Straight Outta Compton, much like its musical forebear and last year’s Selma, is here to remind us of how important that statement is. The history of gangster rap, and by extension N.W.A., is American history because the Reagan years and mislaid priorities of the early New Deal Coalition created a breeding ground of oppression and violence.

I have to admit, I didn’t think director F. Gary Gray had a film like this in him. Set It Off had some hints of the strengths he showcases in Straight Outta Compton, and Friday proved he can have a sense of humor about the truths he wanted to bring to light, but Straight Outta Compton is the real deal. What Gray does is create a complex tableaux of interconnected, and totally American, factors which influenced the creation of N.W.A. and led to the release of “Straight Outta Compton”. That something was going to inevitably come from creating these oppressive conditions is a given, but Straight Outta Compton doesn’t assume N.W.A. would be the only result.

This isn’t to say that Straight Outta Compton is a thorough sociological study. No, it hits a lot of the standard beats of musical biopics, right down to the person who doubts the artist (almost always female) when he’s trying to get his art out to the world. There may be no way to make these scenes feel fresh, and Gray staging the confrontation between Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and his mother (Lisa Renee Pitts). Yeah, the scene has energy, but Dre going from quietly listening to his tunes to the way his mom just doesn’t understand is so familiar it could have been cut to just showing the aftermath.

Those hoping the N.W.A. lifestyle will be vilified or praised should find another movie, the immediate pleasure and long-term consequences of their way of living are present in Straight Outta Compton.

Those hoping the N.W.A. lifestyle will be vilified or praised should find another movie, the immediate pleasure and long-term consequences of their way of living are present in Straight Outta Compton.

But the key to why that scene isn’t a complete failure, and why Straight Outta Compton works, is the way Gray makes points about their environment and the energy behind the performances. We see this earlier when we’re introduced to Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) as he works his way through a smoky hellishly lit apartment to make a deal. Later he’s slammed onto a cop car even though he hasn’t done anything. Everywhere there are reminders that just around the corner is another gang member or police officer ready to “prove themselves”, and the distant sirens, lights, shots, and thudding sound of fists are not far behind any of the early scenes.

Which brings me to quite possibly the best ensemble of performers in 2015. Hawkins, Mitchell, and O'Shea Jackson (who plays Ice Cube), are electric together. Their common goals fuel camaraderie and easy joking in hilarious scenes where Dre is trying to coach Eazy through properly spitting a verse. But those same goals, when they start to diverge, reveals the insecurity that all this might be gone. With the slightest turn of the shoulder, narrowing of the eyes, or released sigh we understand how desperate they all are to keep this fame now that they’re out of their urban California prisons.

It’s this desperation and insecurity which leads to some harrowing scenes that show Gray wasn’t completely willing to let the trio be painted as saints. There’s a hint to this in an early film confrontation which has Dre almost beating the mother of his children and instead banging her car. But then there’s a terrifying display of excess (but remarkable show of skill in a single take by Gray) when the trio travels a harem of naked women only to toss one of them out without her clothes because her boyfriend came banging on the door. Women as decoration, toys, and servants is a constant running theme in Straight Outta Compton and nothing that they do will be good enough for the trio.

Even with this realization, the full extent of their abuse of women was not documented. Dee Barnes has written two articles, one detailing Dr. Dre’s assault on her, and the other acknowledging his public apology while pointing out how piddling it is. I agree with her entirely, and considering there was a scene cut from Straight Outta Compton which would have shown the assault painting her as a partial aggressor in Dr. Dre’s attack would have been similarly inexcusable. What I want to stress is that Straight Outta Compton does not completely stray away from the misogyny of N.W.A., but it doesn’t completely address it either.

The musical performances in Straight Outta Compton are throbbing with so much energy you'd swear they were captured through a time machine.

The musical performances in Straight Outta Compton are throbbing with so much energy you'd swear they were captured through a time machine.

Which is unfortunate, because that tension between what the band is, where they came from, and their antagonistic stance toward authority created the best scene of Straight Outta Compton. After being threatened by the Detroit police Ice Cube launches a between-song tirade just as he calls for the middle fingers of the crowd. In one stunning crane shot, we watch Ice Cube grow larger over the multitude of bodies as they throw up their fingers before circling around him and launching into “Fuck the Police”. The implications here are many, because the police had this response coming and the crowd wasn’t being violent toward them, but the way Cube looks at the cops and the way they bend to his charisma shows how quickly the situation could have turned. Cube and the rest of N.W.A. were completely in the right to play the song, but Gray does not shy away from the complexity of what was going on.

It’s this complexity which makes be wish Gray and the rest of the Straight Outta Compton crew addressed the misogyny and abuse of N.W.A. But I would be disrespecting the rest of Gray’s tremendous achievement by ignoring the subtle complexity of the rest of the film. Some parts don’t fare as well, and Eazy-E gets one of those “movie coughs” where we know the character isn’t long for the world, but the impact of the whole is one hell of a gut punch.

N.W.A. is as much a part of American history as the Alabama marches or the horrific response to Hurricane Katrina. What Gray has done is paint a complex portrait of this history, with glaring omissions we can’t ignore but can’t deny the collective power of. Gray didn’t avoid all the pitfalls of a musical biopic, but his successes make Straight Outta Compton one of the most essential films of 2015.

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   Tail - Straight Outta ComptonStraight Outta Compton (2015)

Directed by F. Gary Gray.
Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff.
Starring O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, and Lisa Renee Pitts.

Posted by Andrew

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