Before it surrenders to some schmaltz by film’s end, F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” is a damn powerhouse. Its racial politics are so incredibly timely and disturbing. Not much has changed since the 1992 L.A. riots, it would appear. Of course, almost everyone carries a camera now, so we keep hoping that makes the difference. I believe it will…but unfortunately, not yet. I didn’t know very much about the hip hop group N.W.A., before seeing this film, so I’m pleased to know a little bit now (of course, always aware things are going to be composited and fictionalized to a degree). Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre…these guys are legends now, and are given an epic style film, covering their origins. It’s pretty darn enthralling too, although I’m certain some things were sanitized and glossed over. But I’m not going to take the film to task for this. Hell, Ben Affleck, and team, did it with “Argo”…and they unjustly anointed him with Best Picture a few years back.
It’s the mid-1980’s, and Eazy-E (a solid Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (a commanding Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (a super O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s actual 24-year-old son) form N.W.A., an eventual super-group that evolves out of the crime and drug-infested neighborhoods of Compton, California. Eventually aided to prominence by manager Jerry Heller (a dynamite Paul Giamatti, effectively sleazy twice to musicians this year, when including “Love & Mercy”), the African-American performers face intimidation and profiling from the police, as well as violence and rivalry from within their own circle. The group eventually earns huge, nationwide popularity, while also fracturing, as well as helping usher in new talents, like Snoop Doggy Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose). Then things get hazy and malevolent, as the threatening Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) makes a move to take over, and the country watches in horror as four white policeman are caught on camera beating suspect Rodney King.
There are other characters that I’m leaving out, and relationships that I wasn’t completely clear on, but I must say that I was mightily impressed by the scope of the whole enterprise. It’s 147 minutes, but you don’t really feel it until the sentiment is turned on as a major character takes ill towards the finale. The movie could’ve been a bit braver when dealing with this issue, and maybe shown a little more edginess when showcasing the often horrendous misogyny. But Mr. Gray, and screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, get most of the tone of the period right. Hit songs, and their controversial lyrics, take the forefront too, like “Straight Outta Compton”, “Gangsta Gangsta”, and the incendiary “Fuck tha Police”. It’s all handled marvelously. This is a necessary and important chronicle, that covers the rise of a musical form, that speaks to a large portion of American society. It has some issues, but overall–I liked it a lot.