Dir: F. Gary Gray
Universal, 2015, USA
Starring: O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
“To a kid lookin’ up to me: life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”
Regionality can be everything in hip-hop. When it isn’t causing interstate, bi-coastal or nationwide feuds, a rapper or collective’s origins generally tend to inform their approach to the genre, be it in the foregrounding of lyricism on the East Coast, or with the emphasis on production in Los Angeles. But that particular fork in the road didn’t occur until the dominant East Coast artists met serious competition in 1988, with the release of Straight Outta Compton by Californian group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). Where New York acts such as Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., and Eric B & Rakim were flaunting their lyrical dexterity, using their talents for activism, or simply having a good time, Compton is a scathingly dangerous record, featuring references aplenty to violence, misogyny, drug dealing, prostitution, and the gleeful murdering of police officers.
Unsurprisingly, that last part didn’t sit well. Inspired by racial profiling and police brutality during the War on Drugs, members of N.W.A wrote “Fuck tha Police” about their experiences of living in crack-devastated neighbourhoods made ever more intolerable by constant harassment by the authorities. They were later chased off-stage and arrested after ignoring an FBI notice banning the performance of the song, which led to enormous publicity and the establishment of the West Coast’s persistent association with gangsta rap. Controversy has long since flooded the scene, mainly from hysterical outbursts from the right-wing press, but also from the real-life gangland violence that has involved many hip-hop stars, particularly (on the West Coast) Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, and the late 2Pac. Basically, every negative cliché you’re likely to hear regarding hip-hop culture began with the media reaction to Compton‘s lyrical themes and the short-sighted decisions made by members of group. Now, over twenty-five years later, F. Gary Gray’s new film Straight Outta Compton pinpoints the moment the bomb dropped, the origin of the shockwave initiated by five guys from Compton, namely: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren.
That Cube and Dre produced the film should surprise absolutely no-one given their glowing representations in the movie, which is tactfully ignorant of Dre’s heavily noted violence towards women (particularly that of journalist Dee Barnes, whom he threw down a stairwell shortly before chasing her into a bathroom and almost beating her to death). Also evident is the involvement of Eazy-E’s widow in the project, as although the film blames him and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) for the friction that would eventually dissolve the group, he is redeemed in the lead-up to his AIDs diagnosis. The real-life Heller also disputes this narrative in his 2006 autobiography, which of course attempts to relieve himself of all guilt, but also suggests that Cube and Dre were instrumental in the demise of N.W.A through arrogance and violence, respectively. But whatever actually happened is pointless to squabble over, given that a story such as this is inherently contentious anyway. The version we get is mostly pro-Cube and pro-Dre, and it states that E became a disruptive force through greed, that Cube stormed out because he wasn’t getting paid fairly (he did write most of the group’s material), and that Dre left simply because of creative differences.
So while Straight Outta Compton falls prey to common criticisms of the dramatised historical biopic (that is, the accuracy of its representation of events), there is no denying that it successfully paints N.W.A for what they really were: a force of nature. At the helm, Gray thankfully manages to abstain from bringing forth the flaws from his unforgivably dreadful last film Law Abiding Citizen, and here, he makes the film a widescreen vérité, entirely naturalistic yet as blistering as Dre’s bulldozing production, or Cube’s adrenaline-fuelled snarl. Much of this is due to the music, both N.W.A’s own anti-aircraft hip-hop and Joseph Trapanese’s string score which, excluding the few moments where it becomes gooey and clichéd, rumbles beneath scenes of mounting unease to enhance the sense of danger that commonly pervaded the lives of these rappers.
That danger and the threat of sudden implosion are the common links that unite the film’s three distinct acts: the first focuses upon the group’s origins as friends in gang-ravaged Compton (where a Crips member boards a school bus and threatens a student with a gun), the second exploring its volatile rise to fame on the 1989 nationwide tour (wherein life began to mimic art), and the third the denouement following N.W.A’s breakup two years later. True to its title, Compton establishes the setting that defined the members and their music and retains these traits throughout, their behaviour consistently developing, ebbing, and flowing as they go. Only our views of the characters change, with certain members souring during the group’s glory years (or ‘glory year’), and sweetening as the collective reunites following the removal of all negative components. Only then does the spectre of death that loomed over their pre-fame era truly and tragically catch up. (You can take the boys out of Compton…)
In the second act in particular, Compton thankfully presents the hedonistic moments of the group’s tour without descending into hedonism itself, which is a good thing because it allows its mammoth 147-minute running time to pass without causing exhaustion (à la The Wolf of Wall Street). The emphasis is always on the characters, if not on all the characters (MC Ren took to Twitter during the film’s production to decry the under-representation he gets), and so the events and drama emerge not from deus ex machina-land in Screenplay Narnia, but convincingly from the actions and interactions of the characters which, again, makes Straight Outta Compton a convincingly lifelike recital of the N.W.A story. Much of that lies within the strength of the actors, the majority of whom are relative newcomers, but all bringing alarmingly effective performances to the table. O’Shea Jackson, Jr is playing his own father (Ice Cube), but still, it’s slightly unbelievable how much he looks, sounds, and acts like Cube Senior. Similarly, Jason Mitchell is not only a deadly look-a-like for Eazy-E, but acquits himself admirably as the charismatic yet slightly dangerous dope-peddler-turned-rapper, unafraid to show emotion, and talented enough to do so in coherence with the rest of his performance. Collectively, they manage to enhance the energetic sprint of the movie, genuinely appearing to be friends, or squaring off tensely when the time calls.
That such strong visual resemblances come with actual talent is symptomatic of the whole movie: despite the inevitable historical looseness in Straight Outta Compton, all involved combine to make it look and feel like the real thing, all while telling a hell of a story in the process. As with the Joy Division film Control and its related antecedent 24 Hour Party People, the foregrounding of location in the early stages massively relieves the film from the tedium and predictability inherent in many musical biopics (an achievement considering that many already know the story inside out), and though it is clearly in service to certain members of the group, Compton nevertheless remains devoted to the group itself, exploring its influences and impact without volunteering for the tired task of overly reconciling the violent lyrics. Essentially, it’s a tasteful paean to five young men for whom taste was the last thing on their minds; a musical movie that’s built to last (and if you fuck with it, it’ll put its foot in your ass).
- L. G. Ball