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After weeks leading the box office at number one, Straight Outta Compton, which I sadly saw late and couldn’t experience this terrific movie’s surprise with everybody else, has become an out of left field late summer hit. In retrospect, this movie’s cultural explosion—142 million worldwide and counting— should’ve been obvious. N.W.A.’s legacy is alive and loved, but what made Compton soar is that their story, starting on the ghetto streets of Compton and ending in Wolf of Wallstreet style uproarious parties in massive mansions, with some stadium concerts as the rocket fuel that brought them higher and higher, is inexorably tied to race and class at a time in desperate need of stories on those subjects to be told. Compton tells a story of a famous music group but also of race and of class and of celebrity, and director F. Gary Gray tells it well in his best directed film to date. This isn’t a story isolated to the stage and behind the scenes drama of a band coming together and falling apart—a story we’ve seen various levels of in many films before, notably Sid and Nancy—but instead plunges you head first into the eternal history of why N.W.A. exploded in the first place.
Wisely, the quintet of script-based storytellers (with two screenplay credits given to Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) realized to completely capture the story of N.W.A. as a Bio-pic, a powerful injection of indirect theme and story was necessary. Gray goes full steam ahead introducing us to the film’s main trio of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eezy-E (Jason Mitchell) through a set of mythologized self-contained story beats that almost work as individual short films telling an origin story. Eazy-E’s is the first—the gangster—introduced to us through a well-shot opening scene that’s already thick with atmosphere and tension, as he places a pistol in his slacked trousers and walks toward a dilapidated house bathed in fluorescent light. It’s a stylish and artistic opening image, showing a gross image of a ghetto home presented to us beautifully, mythologized, romanticized, but still honest and sincere of the memory of how Eazy-E might have lovingly reminisced about the night. Once he enters the house it’s the makings of a drug deal gone awry, a scene straight out of Scorsese, and a beat or two later the sound of militarized police comes charging onto their street. RUN.
Eazy-E went on to produce N.W.A.’s first music ever out of his own pocket, a bid to escape a life he clearly had no reason to continue having, therefore linking the narrative trajectory of Straight Outta Compton to the exact same type military police that fight in “Chiraq.” The portrayal of African Americans and police is largely binary—one is a sympathetic victim at all times while the other is a ghoulishly unrelenting presence that always haunts the main characters. Outside the recording studio where they’re laying down tracks, police show up befuddled at what a group of black guys could be doing in such a nice area. Immediately Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and their cohorts are forced onto the ground, harshly, and if you still didn’t get the idea that the police were assholes to black people, even after Paul Giamatti’s cartoonish manager Jerry Heller shows up (who oddly looks like an older, heavier Julian Assange), the police refuse to acknowledge that their offensive abuse is wrong. One final nail in the coffin of tense race relations: a particularly mean looking cop announces rap isn’t art.
A lot of Compton can’t be called nuanced, measured, or subtle. That’s not okay, that’s the entire point. This movie isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, an accurate cinema verite-like documentarian account of N.W.A.: it’s a point of view, a remembrance, and a feeling. It’s what it was to feel like Ice Cube when his face was smashed into the ground for no reason by a herd of bullish police officers, it’s what it was like to try and make more of yourself from the humblest of beginnings, and it’s what it was like to rebel and represent. That restless fight ‘em back feeling led to one of N.W.A.’s most eternally prescient songs: Fuck Tha Police, an anthem demonizing the pervasive racism experienced by African Americans all over the U.S.. N.W.A.’s political reach became stand-in activism, giving people a voice who used to show symptoms of aphonia.
Accuracy was never a goal, and if you want to you can read into who’s portrayed the best and who’s also listed as a producer. But it’s their story, and they can tell it how they want. Beyond historical truth, Straight Outta Compton captures the truth of moment, and along with charismatic performances by the main cast, you get a sense of what it was like to be any one of them at any particular moment. This is an accomplishment that shouldn't be minimized or looked over. Emulating an experience is a powerful ask for any movie to do, especially one with such a politically uneasy history.
But the storytelling is tight (if overlong a tad), and once the tropes start rolling in when the pulsing first half hour devolves into a typical rise and fall story, so much of Compton fires on so many cylinders asking for more is an act of selfishness. There’s all the usual beats known to that done genre, and the ride to the end is more 60 miles per hour than a hundred. Yes, Jerry Heller is a money-grubbing troll and you know it the second you meet him, yes characters are recklessly violent and even maddeningly stupid, and yes, there’s betrayals, unfettered capitalism, and passive misogyny. But this film is a document of essence, and that essence is N.W.A..
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