Film and TV

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Straight Outta Compton

 Straight Outta Compton

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote: “George Burns was right: show business is a hideous bitch goddess.”

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three and a half '64 Impalas out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Five enterprising youths pull themselves up by their bootstraps, become establishment darlings.

Tagline: "The world's most dangerous times created the world's most dangerous group."

Better Tagline: "It's all fun and games until Suge Knight shows up."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: If the events depicted in this movie are to be believed, South Central Los Angeles was not a pleasant place to live in the late 1980s. Out of this environment of poverty, violence, and police harassment rose five young men: club DJs Andre "Dr. Dre" Young (Corey Hawkins), Antonie "DJ Yella" Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.), rappers O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Lorenzo "MC Ren" Patterson (Aldis Hodge), and bona fide drug dealer Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell). They united to form the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A., galvanizing audiences and infuriating law enforcement and the government before financial disputes and infighting led to their break-up.

"Critical" Analysis: F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton hits theaters almost 30 years after the release of N.W.A.'s debut album, yet many scenes, like those showing Cube stopped and frisked mere steps from his house, or the entire band forced to lie on the ground outside the studio during the SAC recording sessions, could have been taken from yesterday's news. Accident or serendipity, the fact this movie's release comes a mere week after the one-year anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting proves how little has changed.

This lends what follows a much greater weight, for while the movie itself is a mostly warts-free depiction of the group's rise and eventual dissolution, the circumstances described by the band (in what Dre initially refers to as “reality raps”) haven’t gone away. And Gray (along with writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) does his best to parse this reality with their celebration of N.W.A.’s legacy, with mostly successful results.

The first half of the film, showing the coming together of the various members and their swift ascent, draws you in right away. The interaction of the various members and their gradual coming together as the band, to say nothing of the music, is entertaining as hell. Jackson, Jr.'s portrayal is eerily on point, and certainly not hindered by his resemblance to his old man, while Hawkins allows some emotion to pierce Dre’s aloof demeanor. Even the two lesser known members (Ren and Yella, who I always think of as "the rest," Gilligan's Island style) get personalities here.

I wasn't as convinced by Mitchell, which is only a problem because Eazy-E and his relationship with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), along with the fate of Ruthless Records, plays such a key role in Straight Outta Compton. Gray does a decent job weaving that together with the departures of Cube and Dre, and the duo's eventual split. I didn’t initially buy into Giamatti’s performance, but he almost makes us believe he's really on the band's side, right up to the bitter end.

The original cut was rumored to be 3-1/2 hours long, which would be intriguing, if true. So much is crammed into the third act — E’s illness, Dre's growing dissatisfaction with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) and Death Row, Heller's gradual morphing into Palpatine — that it would have been nice to see these events unfold at a more natural pace.

It might also make up for some of the retroactive glossing over the characters receive here. Perhaps it's to be expected when the band members (and E’s widow, Tomica Woods) had primary say in the story, but the only ones who come off in a negative light are Heller and Knight (who learned the finer points of contract negotiation from Vito Corleone). No mention is made of Dre's assault on reporter Dee Barnes in 1992 (or his fellow band members' assertions that "the bitch deserved it"), the rampant misogyny in their songs (though the groupie scenes provide some hints), or their persistent homophobia.

Instead, the third act is a largely toothless highlight reel: Dre's meet cute with future wife Nicole (at the band's "Wet-n-Wild Pool Party"), tender moments between E and Tomica, and Cube reminiscing with wife Kim (Alexandra Shipp) about the good old days while their children frolic in the background. Reality is, as they say, problematic. And while ignoring the unpleasant facets of the group doesn't necessarily detract from the overall quality of the film, it does feel at times like — you'll pardon the expression — whitewashing.

Straight Outta Compton is a fine movie; near great in the first half before descending into cliché amidst too many subplots in the second. It's also an important one, highlighting a segment of society and a history many are still unaware of. That's enough to forgive its shortcomings.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar