Straight Outta Compton


Movie a Day Blog has a special interest in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015, Theatrical), the viscerally effective biopic of NWA, the pioneering hip-hop rap group of the mid-1980s.

The reason is director F. Gary Gray, who directed a film I produced, SET IT OFF (1996), starring Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett as blue collar bank robbers in Long Beach, CA. I think it’s still one of his better efforts, along with FRIDAY(1995, his first feature, written and starring Ice Cube).

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON now joins that list — it’s Gray’s best film, if overlong and at times melodramatic. But the story has a propulsive fervor to it, and it’s never boring.

Ice Cube (O’shea Jackson, who is portrayed in the film by his son bearing his same name with a Jr.), is the impetus behind COMPTON, producing the film along with Dr. Dre and Gray among a total of l6s credited producers.

To Cube and Dre’s credit, the story is not hagiography; the characters are dealt with honestly and expressively, and no one’s image is burnished.

Dre stays true to his beats, Cube to his lyrics, and Eazy E is the smiling angry face of rap, the charismatic glue that holds the multi-member group together (none of the other characters manage to really register).

The reality of police brutality visited upon young black men is vividly demonstrated again and again in COMPTON, a successful tactic that makes it clear these aren’t occasional humiliations, but daily ones.

COMPTON cannot escape the boundaries and tropes of the traditional music biopic: a group no one wants in perserveres by believing in themselves, and with the help of a mentor/manager/record label executive achieve success, only to experience internecine warefare, financial rape by the mentor-turned villain, and the loss of one or more beloved members.

Checking off all the boxes, COMPTON’s script it its weakest aspect. Events are dropped into the movie, set up and then never resurface; there are no real payoffs in this film.

Instead, the young actors portraying legendary music figures take the lead and make the film compelling, entertaining and, yes, inspirational.

This movie was not created for me, and I have a suspicion that they slowed the pace of the rapping in the film so white ears like mine couldunderstand most of it.

But the beat is irresistible and the lyrics compelling when Gray so effectively demonstrates that they derive from a very real source: black life in Compton in the 1980s and 90s, from gang killings to the Rodney King riots, and the anger it provoked.

Gray has a terrific sense of visual composition, and working with ace American cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who also shot BLACK SWAN (2010, Movie a Day 2/10/10), COMPTON feels saturated with deep resonant colors and vividly contrasted backgrounds. It’s great to watch.

The plot holes become more problematic the more you think about the movie after seeing it, but it’s the performances that resonate.

Jason Mitchell as Eazy E is incredibly charismatic as the drug-dealer financier of NWA who becomes their reluctant lead rapper. Mitchell’s smile is enigmatic, sometimes cheerful, sometimes cruel, and the performance by this largely untested young actor is award-worthy.

Corey Hawkins comes off as a young Denzel Washington as Dr. Dre, delivering a remarkably consistent character who is the most admirable in the bunch.

Jackson Jr. looks uncannily like his father Ice Cube, and moves and sounds like him, too. He obviously had plenty of practice to study his character, and while Cube is the film’s angriest character, he’s also one of its most talented (we see him writing the first draft screenplay of FRIDAY in one scene).

For awhile I thought Gray had gotten lost a bit in Hollywood, making mediocre films like A MAN APART (2003) with Vin Diesel, and BE COOL (2005), the worst movie ever made from an Elmore Leonard book.

He redeems the talent he’s always possessed with COMPTON, which I hope will attract an audience beyond the usual “urban” (read black) market Hollywood specifically targets for any movie in which black performers are prominent.

Without trying too hard, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON has a lot to say about the nonexistent “racial dialogue” in our country by giving one side of it a full-throated voice. It was a pleasure to see it, too,  brought to bigger-than-life images on the screen.