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The Independent Critic

Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr.
F. Gary Gray
Jonathan Herman (Screenplay), S. Leigh Savidge (Story), Alan Wenkus (Story), Andrea Berloff (Story), Sheldon Turner (Writer)
Rated R
140 Mins.
Universal Pictures

 "Straight Outta Compton" Misses Opportunity to Be Legendary 

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an estimated 1.3 million women experience Intimate Partner Violence each year in the United States. 85% of all victims of Intimate Partner Violence are women.

Black women are almost three times as likely to die as a result of Intimate Partner Violence than white women. and while Black women make up only 8% of the U.S. population, 22% of homicides related to Intimate Partner Violence happen to Black women. Intimate Partner Violence is one of the leading causes of death for Black women aged 15 - 35.

These statistics, published in a Time Magazine article in on September 10, 2014, perfectly illustrate why the extraordinarily entertaining new film Straight Outta Compton is a good film that misses the opportunity to be a legendary film because it chooses to ignore, whether through artistic choice or pure and simple denial, its obligation to spit the truth on behalf of Black women everywhere.

If you know the band N.W.A., and it's hard to imagine you don't, then you already know that their meteoric rise to the top of the music scene in the mid-1980s came as a result of their pretty much defining a new genre of music, some called it gangsta rap while others called it "reality rap," but whatever term you choose it became the controversial yet undenial voice of those who'd really never been given a voice before and certainly not in popular music. There's a pretty good chance you still know the names that comprised N.W.A. - Ice Cube. Dr. Dre. Eazy-E. DJ Yella. MC Ren. In the mid-1980's, they were five young men from Compton, California, at the time known as one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell) was a drug dealer doubling as a record label owner who recruited the teenaged Ice Cube (played by Cube's real life son O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to create a new kind of voice that would speak a truth that wasn't being heard. Gangsta rap wasn't necessarily new, but it also wasn't really dangerous.

N.W.A. changed all that.

1986 Los Angeles was a pretty volatile beast. This was during the time of Police Chief Daryl Gates' ironfisted hold on the L.A. police department and police brutality was a daily part of life if you were a young Black male or happened to live in Compton, where police would show up and shake down without provocation. Even watching it all unfold in Straight Outta Compton, it's hard to believe you're not watching something that's been wildly dramatized for cinema but you're actually watching a film largely based upon the collective memories and experiences of band members including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, both of whom are credited as producers on the film.

Director F. Gary Gray (Fridays, Law Abiding Citizen) paints a vivid picture early on in Straight Outta Compton that the rage spewed forth by N.W.A. wasn't some manufactured corporate rage but an authentic rage borne out of years of experiencing hardcore poverty, street violence, random acts of police brutality, and a world where even the slightest hint of hope was often smothered to death by the harsh realities of institutionalized discrimination and hatred. It's easy to understand why the police were scared shitless of N.W.A., but it's even easier to understand why their music spoke to a generation that had been ignored for far too long.

Turning hip-hop into a language of street protest, N.W.A. was quickly signed by veteran rock n' roll manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who, in turn, quickly got the band signed to a major label. The band exploded with the release of "Straight Outta Compton," in no small part due to the release of "F-k Tha Police," a song that still lives up to its title and attracted the attention of police departments from around the country along with the F.B.I. because it allegedly encouraged violence against the police. In one of the film's best scenes, N.W.A. is given an ultimatum from Detroit police who threaten to arrest them if they perform the song at a sold-out concert.

Of course, we know what they do.

The first half of Straight Outta Compton is everything you could ever hope for from an N.W.A. biopic - energized, inspired, pissed off and charismatically chaotic. The film slows down in the second half, a half that becomes a little more formulaic than one would like and one that gets bogged down by contract disputes and five hardcore rappers who were a lot better at rapping than they were at protecting their own interests early on in the film. Ice Cube, who wrote about half the lyrics on Straight Outta Compton, is the first to depart when he figures out that he's getting screwed over. Dr. Dre follows shortly behind to go start Death Row Records with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), the latter being a relatively low-key yet constantly menacing presence in the film. Anyone who knows Dre's history knows that his relationship with Knight was to be short-lived, as well, though Straight Outta Compton's insistence on painting Dre as a relative innocent in the departure is one of the film's most obvious and glaring half-truths as there's nary a reference to Dre's 1991 assault on Dee Barnes nor any addressing of other well documented allegations. There is, at least potentially, a subtle acknowledgement in the film of Dre's own desire to break out of that cycle of violence, a desire that, at least according to Straight Outta Compton, was a key factor in his decision to split with Knight and start Aftermath Records. The Dre/Knight relationship is conflicted to this day, though Dre's clearly gotten the better end of the stick as one of the most successful Black men in America while Knight languishes in prison awaiting trial on vehicular homicide charges that, rather ironically, came out of an incident after an early Straight Outta Compton promo night.

Of course, it's understandable why Dre wouldn't want to revisit the past nor let it  be revisited. I get it. I just think the failure of the film to really and truly go there dilutes the power of a film about a band known for its hardcore devotion to truth-telling. If you really want to change the world, you've got to start with yourself.

While I found myself disappointed in Straight Outta Compton's glaring case of selective memory, that's not to say that it's not a damn fine film. In fact, it's hard not to be impressed with how much truth actually is in Straight Outta Compton, though it's noticeably mostly directed at Jerry Heller, who has publicly disputed certain aspects of the film but not with much energy, and Suge Knight, who is likely adding a few more names to the list of folks whose asses he's going to kick if he gets out of jail again.

Let's just say Suge ain't gonna' forget about Dre.

Plus, I can't lie. Despite my quibbles with the script, Straight Outta Compton is a pretty amazing film. Gray and his team made a fine choice in casting relative newcomers, though the most inspired casting of all may very well have been casting Cube's own son to play his father. O'Shea Jackson Jr., O'Shea is Ice Cube's real name, is the spitting image of his father and he manages to bring that early Cube to life without ever resorting to caricature. It's awesome and scary and awesome again.

Jason Mitchell shines as Eazy-E, embodying the young man's swagger yet also capturing realistically how he so willingly developed an almost familial relationship with Jerry Heller. Corey Hawkins, as Dr. Dre, creating a disciplined and calculating persona that makes us believe this guy is both angry enough and smart enough to create a better life for himself and those he loves.

Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge are, rather inappropriately, given less to do as DJ Yella and MC Ren, respectively. Paul Giamatti, as Heller, is surprisingly not demonized but portrayed with a rather jaded affection as a man who very likely exploited the group yet also did exactly what he promised he'd do by getting them into the front doors of all the major studios.

Straight Outta Compton may not be the legendary film that it could have been, but it's still easily one of 2015's best adult-oriented dramas and one of the best musical biopics of recent years. With the blessing of Tomica Wright after years of Wright's refusal to authorize a film, Straight Outta Compton is filled with the voices and the music that inspired half the country and scared the crap out of the rest. F. Gary Gray has quite masterfully captured it all with stellar lensing by Matthew Libatique and a beautifully paced and surprisingly funny film that entertains even when it enrages.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic