Saturday, August 22, 2015

Movie Reviews: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
directed by F. Gary Gray
It was the late eighties. I was temporarily home from college for some reason or the other. My younger brother, bless his heart, had wasted no time turning what was formerly our bedroom into his bedroom. One of the ways in which he signaled this change in management was by blasting what I later learned was N.W.A.'s seminal album Straight Outta Compton as loudly as he could. I didn't really sit down and listen to the lyrics then. All I heard was all the profanity and racial slurs. I politely advised my sibling that as free speech was not necessarily a guaranteed right in our residence when it came to profanity if he wished to avoid a serious (ahem) correction, he would need to turn that **** off before our father returned home. Otherwise things could get ugly. And I didn't want any of that correction bouncing off my brother and hitting me. That would have just ruined my day. Quickly coming to his senses, my brother agreed. Still there was something about the music which almost forced you to listen. I picked up the album later. It was raw, ugly, vicious and admittedly every kind of problematic "ist" you could think of. The album Straight Outta Compton was outlaw chic that went to heights, or rather depths, which had only briefly been previously reached by similar styled rappers such as Ice-T or Schoolly D in "6 in the morning" or "P.S.K", respectively. It certainly wasn't the kind of music I listened to in mixed company or in front of my father. But it also was music that was in its way directly descended from the hardest core blues (check out some uncensored versions of Stag-o-lee, songs about prison rape or Pat Hare's I'm gonna murder my baby) or some of the bleaker soul music of the seventies (some of Curtis Mayfield's work). N.W.A. made mostly nihilistic music that claimed to tell the story of the streets. This music was often apolitical in that it made few attempts at any sort of uplifting message. The group claimed to be documenting what was going on but of course there was some glorification. This was no different than Scorsese films in many aspects. N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" was the perfect soundtrack for adolescent or even older male power fantasies. This made heavy metal sound like Lawrence Welk. This album changed music, specifically rap music for both the better and the worse. The film Straight Outta Compton tells the origin stories, rise and fall and continued success of the young men (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy E, MC Ren, Yellaboy) who became N.W.A.

The first thing to address is that this film was executive produced by Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy E's widow. So I didn't go into the theater expecting this film to provide a deep holistic warts and all look at the more problematic aspects of N.W.A's behavior or lyrics. One of the victims of Dr. Dre's violence, Dee Barnes, was upset that her attack was not even referenced, although she didn't necessarily want to see it depicted. As I wrote before the ugly truth about life is that some very talented and successful people can have some very ugly retrograde views or behave in quite nasty ways to those around them. There was an old joke about Ray Charles which stated that to become a Raelette (female backup singer) a woman needed to "let Ray". I don't think that all of that was included in the Ray film. You will have to decide for yourself how important these things are to you as a viewer. For what it's worth Dr. Dre has released a new general apology for his past actions. Straight Outta Compton is the best film I've seen this year because of the acting, streamlined directing and especially the casting. More on that in a second. But most importantly Straight Outta Compton manages to show Black men as full human beings. They make mistakes, get sidetracked and argue but can still come together as friends who have complex, conflicted and even loving relationships. It's odd that I could write that about a film depicting a group calling themselves N.W.A. who could in many respects ( remember Stanley Crouch or C. Delores Tucker anyone) be rightfully accused of gleefully and profitably portraying the absolute worst stereotypes of black people, specifically black men, but life is full of ironies like that.


I mentioned the casting. We shouldn't be surprised that the actor playing the group's most prominent and charismatic lyricist, Ice Cube, looks just like Ice Cube, circa 1988~1995. O'Shea Jackson Jr. happens to call Ice Cube "Dad'. So of course he closely resembles his famous father. But the younger Jackson made his role work by capturing his father's quick snarl that could just as easily turn into a smile, gait, tone and every other characteristic of the elder Jackson. One of his most powerful scenes is wordless as he watches a gang member provide an impromptu after school motivational speech to a busload of high school students. He nailed this role, no question. Corey Hawkins also shines as Dr. Dre, a talented but frustrated DJ and producer who knows that he's wasting his time working for people who can't see that hardcore rap is the next big thing. Easy E (Jason Mitchell) likely has the film's meatiest role. Mitchell was in the films Contraband and Broken City but obviously not as lead. I can't even remember him. Mitchell has only been acting for three years. His performance here just shows what some people can do when they get a chance. I think Straight Outta Compton narrowly avoids a descent into melodrama when it focuses on the later part of Easy E's short life but the quick pace makes it work. Easy E was an unlicensed pharmaceutical distributor with awareness that his progress along that career path was likely going to be limited by the law or permanently ended by rival unlicensed pharmaceutical distributors. Easy E obviously had entrepreneurial talents. He ran in some of the same circles as Dr. Dre and rapper MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Appealing to Easy's eye for profit, Dr. Dre convinces Easy E to bankroll studio time and record production for a group he's overseeing. When the original talent leaves in a huff, Easy is cajoled and almost shamed into getting in front of the mic, despite his highly questionable relationship with pitch and timing. And we see the birth of N.W.A.


The other theme which ran through the movie and still resonates today is the way that police, often white, but black as well, continually pick on black people, specifically young black men. You just don't have to be doing anything. You can literally be minding your own business, as jazz legend Miles Davis learned, and be placed under police suspicion, arrest or violence. Class, wealth, employment, intelligence, respectability or artistic skill provide no protection against this. Straight Outta Compton skillfully weaves several examples of this police brutality throughout the film. It's not just a question of physical manhandling but a constant stream of taunting and insulting that explains to everyone why the song  F*** the Police appealed to many people, regardless of what they thought of N.W.A.'s other creative work. I mean would you be happy if someone with a gun and a badge threatened and cussed out your mother? Probably not. It is also important to single out Paul Giamatti for his magnificent portrayal as the alternately shady and solicitous record company owner, manager and promoter, Jerry Heller. The film argues that Heller badly ripped off the N.W.A. members and did so with a smile. This could have been a thankless or even stereotypical cardboard role, but Giamatti brings a certain intelligence and self-consciousness to the character. Heller is someone who can't be trusted but he also has some hard unpleasant truths to tell about the lack of black distribution, production, legal representation and management in the music and entertainment industry. There are doors that a white person could open that others can't easily reach. Heller argues that Easy E (his favorite) and N.W.A need him. But he doesn't want anyone reading contracts too closely. This is a source of irritation to the suspicious Ice Cube. Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), founder of Death Row records, provides a different management style. Knight's contacts with (and membership in ?) the Bloods as well as his intimidating size and fearsome industry reputation make formal contracts only a minor afterthought. If you're signed with his company you're going to stay with his company. And don't ever park your vehicle in his assigned space. Where some people were studio gangsters Suge was the real deal. The film shows that while it can theoretically be great to have someone like that on your side to cut through a lot of industry nonsense it can also be downright dangerous. Dre sees this first hand. And speaking of conflict and negativity Straight Outta Compton entirely ignores the internal black debate over publicly embracing and using ugly language which was previously only used routinely by street people. Richard Pryor did this roughly two decades before Straight Outta Compton but later came to regret it. Is it possible to move forward if you internally see yourself as something negative. That's a question this movie evades to its detriment. In modern times we often think the greatest sin is hypocrisy but I'm not so sure. There was a reason that in bygone days "blue" comedians or singers often made different recordings for different audiences. Anyway.  
As N.W.A. only had one great album, this movie swiftly moves to post N.W.A. successes and challenges, such as Ice Cube's solo albums, involvement with the NOI and film career, Dr. Dre's ascent to become one of the world's most famous producers, his work with Snoop Dogg and Tupac and Easy E's slow health decline and grim realization that he may have been outhustled and punked by both Jerry Heller and Suge Knight. This was a very long movie but with just one or two exceptions it didn't feel like it. The pacing was on point. The camera swoops in and out to give a very naturalistic feeling to the proceedings. As mentioned this was the best first run film I've seen so far this year. No matter if you are already familiar with the time or music depicted or have never heard of the group this is a movie worth watching. Oscar material? I haven't seen enough new films this year to make that claim. Ren and DJ Yella don't get a whole lot of emphasis in Straight Outta Compton but I guess there's only so much spotlight to go around. Those two members didn't write or produce the film so that's what happens. I always thought Ren was underrated. Yella in particular is shown as sex obsessed even by rapper/musician standards.Other associated acts also get short shrift. Look for a humorous shout out to the television hit show "Empire"/movie "Friday". 
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