“Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.”
Straight Outta Compton is a good bad movie, an attempted thinkpiece that would prefer if you just close your mind off altogether. You know who will love this film? The people who were present in the depicted time. If you walked the streets of Compton, protested in the Rodney King riots, or witnessed the unlawful acts and injustices against minorities, then this movie is for you. And while I personally cannot attest to its truthfulness, it still feels incredibly honest. But this biopic lacks the power to transport, has no specificity in what it wants to share or to convey. Some films can be broad while sustaining context; others must walk the straight and narrow path. How can you love a movie that ducks, darts, and does everything in its power to escape you? Straight Outta Compton is overwrought with ideas and amorphous in its execution.
As I’m sure you already know, the story covers the rise and the fall of rap supergroup N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton’s first half is a wonder and a delight, watching these three young men find a voice not only for themselves, but for their community. Plenty are involved in their emergence, with three playing the most pivotal roles. There’s Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). MC Ren and DJ Yella linger about, but are never integral to the plot. Watching the creative process, the Behind the Music of these three young leads gives depth and background to songs we’ve heard and sung along with. One scene in particular stands out, showing the racial profiling and mistreatment by law enforcement officers that led to the recording of the infamous track “F*** the Police” is key. Their reality rap, their art, took hold of the youth in an era of forgettable slow jams. N.W.A’s influence and power, then and now, is undeniable.
It’s also undeniable how stupidly and puzzlingly long this film is. This is a group that had a clear goal in mind. They sought a sort of uprising through peaceful anarchy. Which is disconcerting, because with this length, with this many storylines, Straight Outta Compton might as well have been a HBO miniseries (and I’ll bet a damn good one at that.) Politics, gangs, squabbles, partying, money problems, disloyal management. We don’t need it all. Condense the story, grab whichever angle best conveys your theme, and run wild with it. Instead of condensing, this builds condensation, watering down the intermittently powerful scenes to chewy wafers with no crisp texture and no defining qualities. The group’s interactions with the police are the best parts, and unironically, the most timely. Straight Outta Compton could have struck a rhapsodic chord. Instead it’s a PSA.
Despite my grievances, director F. Gary Gray shoots the film with as much authority as he is allowed. One of his quick shots, of red and blue bandanas tied together and held overhead, signifying the Watts truce between the Crips and the Bloods just prior to the ’92 riots, is the most striking image of the entire film. The story references Boyz n the Hood at one point, and it’s apparent Gray’s direction was inspired by John Singleton, a crucial voice for African-American youth in the early 90’s with that brilliant debut film, Higher Learning, and Poetic Justice. Gray manages to get the best from his cast too. Paul Giamatti is believable as their manager Jerry Heller. Mitchell and Hawkins are respectable as Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. But the real star is O’Shea Jackson, playing his own father. His looks are uncanny, his presence and charisma second to only the original Ice Cube. Jackson had to audition for the role and earn it in the presumably scouring eyes of his old man. It’s a triumphant performance. He doesn’t just have an attitude; he visibly wears it.
Mostly though, Straight Outta Compton is two and half hours of frustration. There are blips of life here and there. The cinematography is gorgeous. The directing competent, at times even praiseworthy. The story admirable. But participation trophies don’t get you up on the podium. And as an audience, it’s almost impossible to become a participant in this film. As we get further along, and the group begins to tear at the seams, we lose the characters’ identities and motivations. They sacrifice their everyman qualities. Not that they need to fulfill that storytelling device; far from it. But it’s necessary nonetheless. Film is the most empathetic art form there is except for when it loses touch with the soul. Up on stage, Ice Cube says to Dre, spinning the records behind him, “I got somethin’ to say.” Straight Outta Compton shouts that same message. And then the lights go dim, the mic goes static, and the crowd grows quiet. It’s a pompous performance diminished by stage fright.
“We left a lot of good records on the table.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5