The “ghetto bird” peruses the sky with its bright eye detailing the wide avenues and spinal network of alleyways in South Central Los Angeles. A cavalcade of “LA’s Finest” precede the rumble of door busting tanks with smiling faces painted on the noses of the rams. The color wheel is completely exploited, though we always seem to return to two of the most pivotal and dangerous colors on the palette. It’s hot. It’s dark. It’s sunny. It’s loud. It’s exciting. It’s brutal. It’s Straight Outta Compton.
Had Selma been released 7 days later, I’d be able to say that 2015 has been the most explosive year for films that revolve around stories concerning the Black community. Alas, Selma was released on December 25, 2014. No matter though. Straight Outta Compton kicked the doors of expectation right off the hinges. Many predicted a success, but how many could have foreseen a success to this magnitude. The film, directed by F. Gary Gray, returned an opening weekend box office number of over $60 million. The numbers continue to rise and as of August 18, 2015, a mere four days out, Straight Outta Compton boasts a whopping domestic total of nearly $75 million. It is the largest weekend opener for a “Black film” in the history of cinema. Even if we considered films with a Black lead, there are only three that top it: I Am Legend; Rush Hour 2 and Hancock. A bit of a side note, Chris Tucker is the Black lead in Rush Hour 2. Tucker made his cinematic debut in F. Gary Gray’s first feature film, Friday. Many things come full circle. Anyhow, Straight Outta Compton is the 5th biggest August debut ever and 7th biggest R-rated debut of all time, as reported by Forbes.com. Needless to say, this movie is HUGE. After the 2 hours and 27 minutes spent watching the truncated timeline of classic Hip Hop group N.W.A.’s rise, demise, evolution and legacy, I personally feel like everyone involved deserves this historic moment.
What a ride! Caution; there are some spoilers in my review, though it’s difficult to spoil history that’s been so heavily covered. When the movie begins inside of a dilapidated trap house in Los Angeles, there was risk of stale tropes and a cliche start to the common Horatio Alger story. Then F. Gary Gray does something that immediately pulls the viewer in. He raises the tension and the sense of vulnerability at the same time. This is Eazy-E’s beginning and he’s a fast talker, but he’s not above danger. He’s not completely safe. If it’s not the trapped mouse in a house packed with mangy looking felines, it’s the whistle from outside alerting those in the ring of fire that a new enemy is swiftly approaching: the LAPD. That’s when all Hell breaks loose. It’s a raid. Wood is splintered. Glass is shattered. Bodies fly in a multitude of directions. Our hero narrowly escapes. That is what the city is and the movie so accurately portrays that energy. This is not a quiet film. The beginning tells us everything we need to know; and that is a group of characters find themselves in many rooms together and things get hot, noisy, chaotic, sweaty, dangerous, and tight within one quarter of their lives. It happens that fast. For our protagonists, Straight Outta Compton looks at close to ten years of their lives. For the audience, it’s 2 hours and 27 minutes, and I am so sure that when the surviving members look back on the times, that it pretty much feels that way to them as well.
A lot feeds into the success of this film, marketing and publicity being a couple of huge factors. As far as the product is concerned, the performances are superb. The cast of Straight Outta Compton is rounded out by fresh faces: among them are Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella. Aldis Hodge, a not so fresh face but still on the blossoming side of his career, plays MC Ren with so much gravity that he totally nails this dangerous Hip Hop artist that is a bit more weathered in the streets than his group mates, with the exception of Eazy-E. Paul Giamatti, who gives an inspiring performance as Jerry Heller, anchors the entire cast with his impeccable dexterity, experience and energy. He’s just as much alive as the musical soundtrack under the concert scenes. When Heller describes the nature of business during his final meeting with Eazy-E, Giamatti has a hundred million things occurring behind his eyes that it seems he’s one bad sentence away from melting into a tsunami of tears. In the same scene, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E has his work cut out to remain unwavering and steadfast on his mission to place much distance between him and an advisor that has taken the roll of a father figure in some respects. It is strikingly clear that Mitchell’s performance does not lose itself in the supposed gangster persona of Eric Wright (Eazy-E). Mitchell succeeds so well in his job of transitioning from severe Crip affiliate to a young man holding onto his last rope of life. He never loses sight of the fact that Eazy-E, as well as the other members, were still very young when they began and young adults when it ended. No scene visually describes it more so than when Eazy-E falters in the studio during the recording of “Boyz-n-the- Hood.” For all the brass it took to walk into that red zone at the start of the film, the not so simple task of recording one lyric on beat in front of his friends makes Eazy-E completely self-conscious. When the most stirring moment in Eazy-E’s life is portrayed on the screen, the scene is a torrent of emotion thanks in part to Mitchell’s handling of such a demanding task. It is absolutely the most heartrending part of the film.
Corey Hawkins does a great job of being the glue that ties the narrative together as Dr. Dre. If Eazy-E is at the center of the N.W.A. story, then Dr. Dre expands the scope of the narrative. Hawkins captures that magnificently as he responds to the dangerous avenues being navigated while perfecting the art of musical creation. There is risk in every moment. There is loss at every turn; whether it be the loss of his daughter, the loss of his brother, the loss of his affiliates or even the loss of a hurtfully estranged friend. Hawkins processes it all and plays the pressure that amounts when a young man loses the strength to reconcile it all. The breakout performance is given by O’Shea Jackson Jr., son of O’Shea Jackson Sr., also known as Ice Cube. Jackson Jr. is absolutely comfortable in his feature film debut and embodies everything that makes Ice Cube famous for being the person he is. Jackson Jr. exhibits the intelligence, intuition, attitude, bravado and brawn. There were a couple of moments where the actor’s effort could have used a bit of lightness but it is abundantly clear that Jackson Jr. loses himself in the uniqueness of Ice Cube’s presence. In Cube’s contract meeting with Heller, the actor may have pushed a bit hard, opting to overhaul playing any slight moment of softness, but it did feel as if this same choice was spot on during Cube’s interrogation of Priority Records executive Bryan Turner.
Speaking of hard, another breakout performance was Matthew Libatique’s intoxicating cinematography. Libatique is well established but he brings something completely fresh to musical biopics. There is a perfect balance of his commercial eye with his highly attentive independent sensibilities. The movement of the camera had so much energy yet still maintained a sense of calculation. By shying away from fast paced whip pans and driving the dolly, Gray further beefed the value of the music. The marriage of sound and cinema is rarely as exhilarating. The bass of the music directs inner movement and placing the lens next to the mouths of those performing intensified the sitting experience. One has to fight the terribly difficult battle of not committing a theatrical sin by remaining in the seat rather than hitting the aisles and taking the feet back to 1989. It is the music many of us remember. It is the percussive aggression many of us remember. The THUMP Duh THUMP THUMP that escaped our speakers on hot summer days with the windows down in blood curdling traffic just to let the next man know that you aren’t the one to mess with. Stay in your lane and I’ll stay in mine. It’s that body shake noise that ends the night with a pressing need for a third shower. I embarrassingly wanted so bad to hold dialogue with the screen but such an impulse would have been criminal during an early day screening in a room built to hold 250 people, but at present, held 10. What is this movie in a room full of people? What is that response like? What is that experience?
Straight Outta Compton is a political movie. It is not a simple biopic about an insignificant musical act. The injustice shown in this film is so current that I began to feel my temperature rise. The biopic dealt with a theme of police brutality in the inner city communities of color. This film, about a Hip Hop group that grew to prominence in the late ’80’s, placed a camera on activities that are currently being exposed in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, New York, Chicago, etc. The list goes on. The list has always went on ever since the establishment of the sharecropping system. The brutality is parasitic activity against the mental stability of an entire community. That energy is one of the threads of the film. The LAPD overexert their power and abuse the young Black men physically, mentally and emotionally. On top of that, the nature of the music industry does its fair share of manipulation and advantage play. The men specifically in this Hip Hop group are abused and they respond with abusive language and actions. Life for them becomes savage and the first use of protection, if not fatal action, is vitriolic language. This is oppression at its finest. What’s amazing about this film, as well as the group themselves, is that they brave the response. Safety is a constant issue but rarely a choice. The LAPD brutally finger our protagonists and throw them to the ground, N.W.A. answers with “F*ck the Police.” Police threaten arrest in another state if the song is performed on stage, N.W.A. responds by literally saying “F*ck the Police.” The oppressive abuse is filmed and shown to the masses. They are vulgar activists in a vile sort of Black Panther spirit. Both cut from very similar cloths. Both immortalized as a result of their relationship to policing tactics in California. The viewing is inspiring because it reinforces the idea that we as a community are not obligated to accept the mule treatment. We do have the legal right to fight for civility and exercise our freedom of speech. We do have the right to rise up against an abusive establishment. If nothing has changed in 25 years, then we have a responsibility to seek better and force the change ourselves.
For all the praise of the film, an honest look at the narrative would suggest that the marginalization of Black woman does continue on the big screen. I have some interesting thoughts about this topic. Interesting to myself anyway. Yes, an injustice has been done to Black women with this film. The misogyny can’t be overlooked. More so than that, the exclusion of women can be considered harrowing. If I knew nothing about the group and saw the movie, I’d walk away thinking that a few of the members added important women to their lives later in their careers. Going even further, I’d think that the women that they did find weren’t that important to the process as it evolved. That would be all good if it were true. Ice Cube’s wife randomly pops up in the movie with no introduction. It was so jarring that I thought I may have missed a very short scene prior to her sitting with Cube and Bryan Turner. One scene in which maybe she was sitting around in the studio and had a one liner or anything. She dropped in the movie with no real purpose to pushing the narrative other than the point that the real Ice Cube, the Executive Producer of the film Ice Cube, has to go home at the end of the night. In reality, Kimberly Woodruff has been a part of Cube’s life since the late 80’s. In the film, she pops up as support to tell him that he’s doing well in his decisions. Nicole Young, Dr. Dre’s wife, has an even less essential role. Ultimately, as far as the film is concerned, she’s simply the only girl that doesn’t sleep with him, and therefore, she’s the real thing. That’s about as deep as we get with her. She is also Dre’s current wife. But during the time that the movie covers, Dr. Dre should be dating R&B singer Michel’le. Tamica Wright, Eazy-E’s wife, has the most important role as she deals with financial matters. She comes in late and there just isn’t much time to explore her but at least her character pushed the narrative.
I’ll say this. I’m not surprised. I was never surprised. I never thought women would have a large role or voice in this story. Maybe I should be somewhat ashamed for further supporting that behavior. Concerning the group that’s in question, some horrible things have been said about women. God awful things. They weren’t concerned about the plight of women when they were teenagers and to be honest, I don’t think they’ve fully reconfigured all of their views as adult men. Going even further, I don’t think any of them ever intellectualized their views on women. I couldn’t imagine they’ve ever thought that deeply about it. The music that they made was a complete product of their environment. To really go into some of what they’ve said and a lot of what they’ve done just may have been a completely different movie. It would take a truthfully intelligent analysis of the treatment of Black women by Black men in impoverished settings to get at the root of N.W.A. because I believe they were living in their times. When I was a kid, all of the boys thought the pimps were the dopest because they had women and money. When our parents were teenagers, the Blaxploitation films with the pimps and naked women in it made all of the money. Then they turned around and told us how those were their favorite movies and the men were killing the women “bitches.” Then our parents’ parents were witnessing the medical revolution that showed women actually enjoyed sex and could have orgasms. Who would’ve known?! WHOA!!! The mental and physical abuse of the Black woman is a pathology that needs a very serious look. As far as this film is concerned, I believe Dr. Dre’s relationship with Michel’le would have made for a more complex and interesting character than we have in the present movie. It does get dangerous for a couple of reasons though. One very surface reason is that Michel’le would have been difficult to cast and play with some seriousness. Maybe if she weren’t current with the R&B Diva’s then the task would be a bit simpler. Fact is, I’ve never seen anyone with Michel’le’s unique octave. Never in my life. Maybe the direction of the project steers clear of reproducing Michel’le’s voice and stick to her story. That’s a option. Thing is, Dr. Dre never made amends with his past. He moved on. As awful as it all sounds, he literally moved on. And what’s even worse is that N.W.A. was made extremely popular by saying the worst things a man could say about a woman. Then Ice Cube left N.W.A. and continued to woman bash. Then Dr. Dre left N.W.A. and made The Chronic and proudly sang the chorus, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks. Lick on these nuts and suck the dick.” He sold over 5 million albums in its current day. What does one do with that? I don’t know what I’d do with that. Maybe I’d try to find a way to make a statement but the statement in real life was so clear; there is a community of Black men with such a low impression of Black women that groups of men have become millionaires through the use of denigration. And N.W.A. were the progenitors of that. And that becomes a different movie. And that was the movie that the producers decided not to make because the producers happened to be the actual progenitors of that language in Hip Hop. They shied away from it. They feared it. They told the story they wanted to tell. And this could be because I’m a guy myself, and I won’t shy away from that, but I wasn’t dying to see it either as I watched the movie that was presented to me. I related the forces they were fighting with the forces that are a huge issue for me today. If the movie wasn’t completely honest with the women that were present during the rise of N.W.A., it was very current with the social atmosphere of this country. I feel bad for the women that were there and not represented. Do these men deserve to be taken to task for the exclusion of women in this film? Absolutely. They made the choice and they must man up when asked about it. But we do have to consider what is shown, how much of it is shown, and at what point it becomes a different movie. We watch films to nestle under redeemable characters. Abuse is a serious topic and I’m not sure if there were many women associated with N.W.A. at the time that weren’t abused. I don’t know how I’d keep the spirit of the existent product, show the truth about their abuse of women and redeem them while blasting the lyrics about sexual abuse. I’m not sure if F. Gary Gray could either.
P.S. the “Bye Felicia” scene was irresponsible and cheap. I do feel that way. Leave it out or go further. The way it is right now is all laughs. Or in a sparse theater, kind of awkward.
On a less pressing note, and like all biopics, squeezing so much material in so little time raises many questions. The timeline during the second half of the movie wasn’t as clear as the first half. Ice Cube’s part became less interesting once they all survive the beef. Dr. Dre’s falling out of favor with Death Row materialized well but his exit appeared too easy and very swift. The film perfectly added cynical danger to Suge Knight’s character but it fell somewhat flat when dealing with Dr. Dre’s departure. Eazy-E’s story remained strong and well connected throughout though it wasn’t clear how long in actual time he suffered toward the end of his life. Eazy-E famously dies of AIDS. The question I had was how long did he suffer symptoms before he was forced to see a doctor? By watching the film, it could’ve been anywhere from 2 years to several months. What about Eazy’s wife, Tamica Wright? Also, Eazy’s death was a very publicized moment that changed the course of how HIV was viewed in the Black community. I personally don’t feel the movie correctly explored how big Eazy’s death was for the country. We move from that to Dr. Dre’s exit of Death Row. Eazy’s death was truly a pivotal moment in transforming the way heterosexual lovers viewed the virus; before the death of Eazy-E, as his line in the film expressed, the HIV virus was still primarily attributed to the gay community. This unraveling of sorts hints at the pertinent bond and charisma that the actors had when playing off of each other. The scenes are that much more powerful when they are together. Each actor is still strong enough to keep the audience invested in every character’s solo journey, but what translates off of that screen when they are in the same room is mesmerizing. It was as if they’d known each other their entire lives. It just happens that Jason Mitchell is given most of the meat in the second half as the film slowly becomes Eazy-E’s tribute. With all of that said, I believe this is truly a powerful movie. I’d love to experience it again. I think it encapsulates a difficult as well as a magical time for so many of us. I wasn’t old enough to understand the things that were shown and said, but N.W.A.’s music filtered through the halls of my home. Their voices brought about an energy indicative of a good time in South Chicago during a period of extremely violent unrest. They are so full of controversy, and so troubling, and so bold, and so raw and so live. Straight Outta Compton truly is a beautifully complicated piece of work.