“Straight Outta Compton” arrives in cinemas at an interesting time for American viewers. It comes on the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots, triggered by a police stop in South Central L.A., and the one year anniversary of the Ferguson, Missouri unrest, triggered by the shooting death of a young black man at the hands of a white police officer.
Clearly African-American rage at the militaristic tactics of the largely white occupying force of police in their communities is nothing new, not now and not in August 1988 when N.W.A.’s groundbreaking album “Straight Outta Compton” was released.
This movie does a number of things, and some better than others, but in tracking the back story of the performers who came together as the gangsta hip-hop group N.W.A. it drags viewers into the everyday reality of living in areas such as Compton and South Central.
While accurately describing the reality of violence and death in the hood — whether this actually glamorizes such violence I’ll leave to listeners — the group’s lyrics also acted as an angry reaction to police violence perpetuated in some of L.A.’s most ignored hoods.
Its most incendiary song, “Fuck tha Police,” rode a wave of controversy, goaded by a politically conservative backlash and FBI and Secret Service warnings, to platinum status with no airplay to support the record. And it turned the members of N.W.A. into celebrities, a status Ice Cube and Dr. Dre still hold today thanks to entrepreneurial careers.
But the urtext of “Straight Outta Compton,” the album and now the movie, has to do with the oppressiveness of living in a constant state of siege from the paramilitary LAPD of the Daryl Gates era.
There is one scene in the movie when the group, taking a break in the midst of a recording session, are set upon by cops — one of them is even black — looking to jam them for no other reason than their momentary presence outside the studio on the street. Their white manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), can’t believe what he’s seeing and hearing.
Completely unused to such behavior and treatment from L.A. police, he tries to intervene only to find himself treated, temporarily, as a gang-banger himself by the cops. He all but foams at the mouth in the presence of such unconstitutional behavior by any police force. It’s just another day in the hood for N.W.A.
The film itself, written by several people (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, from an original story by Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus) in no doubt close cooperation with producers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, was directed by F. Gary Gray, who early in his career directed an Ice Cube video and went on to helm his comic outing “Friday.” So look for no dispassionate objectivity here. This is coming straight out of the N.W.A. itself.
So what? The film doesn’t gloss over many of the negative aspects of the N.W.A. story but it does give short-shift to some players and subplots.
You would need a documentary of at least twice the length of this 142-minute movie to cover all the things this movie barely touches: the drug-dealing background of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell, very good); the contractual battles involving Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records and alleged chicanery of Heller; the whole subplot of Suge Knight and founding of Death Row Records; the contributions of DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), getting only minor attention here; and N.W.A.’s enormous influence on West Coast hip-hop.
You might also want to accuse the film of treating its female characters not unlike the group treated its female groupies — as utterly disposable. Only a few of these barely clad women are granted lines of dialogue and only when they become girlfriends or wives.
These objections, valid as they may be, miss the point. “Straight Outta Compton” perfectly catches the zeitgeist of 1988 Compton and the young teenagers who turned to music instead of drugs, violence or gang-banging to get a message out to a world still largely resistant to that message.
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s own son, and Corey Hawkins play Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and along with Mitchell’s Eazy-E they comprise the core of Gray’s movie. Their rage against the police in several cites they tour, their manager, the record companies and each other almost from the start forms the nucleus of “Straight Outta Compton.”
While tracking everyone’s career — Ice Cube going solo, Dr. Dre founding Death Row Records with Knight, Eazy E’s fatal illness — and genuflecting toward the music-bio conventions of pop stardom and its discontents, the film manages to capture the anarchic spirit of the music and the rappers.
It also captures the virulent reaction to the LP and N.W.A. itself. The Sex Pistols received a similar reception from those struggling to uphold middle-class morality but they were white and, even more gratifying, English. This album came from five young American black men and Upholders of Morality saw it as an incitement to violence. Which was a cause of real hysteria.
Gray shoots the hell out of the movie thanks to his collaboration with ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique. He gives the sprawling movie rich saturated tones with vividly contrasting backgrounds. The film is hypnotic to watch.
This is a movie that can launch a thousand conversations and, sadly, as pertinent now as the record was in 1988. Whatever its flaws, “Straight Outta Compton” is a great origin story for N.W.A. and a sad precursor to #BlackLivesMatter.
Opens: August 14, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production company: Broken Chair Flickz
Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates, Jr., R. Marcus Taylor, Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Story by: S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, Andrea Berloff
Producers: Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, F. Gary Gray, Scott Bernstein, Dr. Dre
Executive producers: Will Packer, Adam Merims, David Engel, Bill Straus, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni
Director Of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Editors: Billy Fox, Michael Tronick
R rating, 142 minutes