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“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” - Straight Outta Compton by NWA, 1988

 

So sets our introduction for the portrait of pop culture history we are about to watch.  In an all-too common scene in downtown Los Angeles, a drug deal is about to take place… or is it?  A diminutive figure in gleaming Jheri curls is about to get double-crossed in the worst way by his partners in crime, who threaten the small man’s life.  He braves out the firepower aimed at his face with some quick thinking, tough talk and clever anti-scam manoeuvres.  The standoff is broken when, like Avon, the LAPD come calling, only they ring the doorbell with a battering ram, affording the youth escape over the rooftops of his hometown.

This is the world director F. Gary Gray plunges his viewers into in order to make us understand the egg from which rap icons NWA was hatched, fully-formed and armed to the teeth with the rage and bitterness of their circumstance on the tough streets of Compton, California.  After Eric Wright’s harrowing, gravity-defying flight to freedom, we meet Andre Young, reclined, surrounded by vinyl album covers, plugged into his headset and oblivious to the world around him, much to the distress of his loving mother.  Like any caring parent, she just wants her child to have a good, secure livelihood and stay out of trouble, and cannot abide Andre’s risky, impractical dreams of a different life built around his love of music.  Meanwhile, O’Shea Jackson unwittingly risks his life to get an education as his school bus traverses the idyllic, pastel-coloured neighbourhoods of Caucasian kids his own age, carefree and untroubled in their own new cars, while his own conveyance is boarded by gun-toting gang members who give a rather extreme motivational speech, complete with visual aids, to the terrified teens before disembarking.  Another commonality that binds the youths is the wanton and often completely illegal brutality perpetrated by the police officers allegedly on the streets to protect them.  The pervasion of street gangs has every officer in fear of his life and in turn taking that fear out on the populace, by profiling innocent citizens, disrespecting and roughing them up at will, with no recourse.

The only respite these kids have from their stress-filled and dangerous existence lies in their shared love of rap music.  Andre uses his broad knowledge of soul and R&B to create patterns and beats, while O’Shea’s agile and perceptive mind adds the raw, biting lyrics to their own compositions.  All very fine and good, but it doesn’t fit anywhere in town during this era of glossy Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ synth-laden pop tracks dominating the dance floor.  Undaunted, the boys spring one of their creations on a shoulder-padded, activator-laden club crowd to a rapturous reaction.  When Andre proposes getting serious about the music industry, Eric’s ill-gotten gains provide the funding for their first release, which catches fire immediately.  The group’s local popularity is noticed by a record distributor named Jerry Heller, who approaches Eric about going into business together to further the group’s success.  Jerry’s connections get the guys signed to a company whose biggest hits were by the Claymation California Raisins, but after seeing those profits weren’t peanuts, the group starts recording and touring.  Eric becomes Eazy-E, Andre becomes Dr. Dre, O’Shea is henceforth known as Ice Cube, and so joined with MC Ren and DJ Yella begins the rise of NWA and Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records label.

NWA’s release of their incendiary “F*** tha Police,” a full-throated, uncensored commentary on their contentious interactions with the LAPD, makes them both a cause célèbre and a right-wing target; bringing threats from both local law enforcement, as well as the FBI.  With his usual humour, Eric takes it all in stride, citing any publicity as good publicity.  Against their plotzing manager’s entreaties, he encourages the group to carry on as normal, thumb squarely in the eye of their would-be oppressors.  After one riotous arrest, the members celebrate in handcuffs after being chucked into the hoosegow for defying a direct order by the cops not to play the song on stage.  Their defiance is timely, as we are reminded again and again that the rise of NWA occurred alongside the boiling temperature of a public fed up with racist treatment by police, which is set off literally in flames by the Rodney King beating and subsequent not guilty verdict of the cops who assaulted him so brutally.

The rise of Suge Knight in the group’s presence around this time is apropos, brought about by Andre’s increasing disgust with Jerry Heller’s backhand treatment of the other group members.  Received with wariness from the early days of NWA’s success, the very large man {Played with a bug-eyed, simmering tension by R. Marcos Taylor} pops up every so often and circles around the group like a very big shark, giving a terrifying leer to the schlubby Jerry, whose only mode of combat is by lawsuit.  Knight, currently in jail on a murder charge, is possibly the most feared and mysterious figure in rap history.  The evil deeds - proven and rumoured - laid at his door seem endless, as he has freely used the thuggish tactics he learned as a gang member himself to conduct business as the co-owner of Death Row Records, the label he begins with Andre after he breaks with Eric.  Trading once brand of Ruthless for another, Dre watches Suge mercilessly pistol whip a hapless young man who parked in what Knight arbitrarily determined was his space, but somehow the incident doesn’t immediately tell the otherwise intelligent producer to flee as if his pants were aflame.  It isn’t until the big man’s outrageous, debased, Caligula-like antics take over their very office space while Dre is busy creating the seminal West Coast rap sound with discoveries like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg (Whom Knight is immediately ready to dismiss due to his rival gang affiliation), that he cuts ties with Knight, but then only after giving up a huge amount of his fortune and song rights.

As always when reviewing, I try to go into the theatre with as little production info as possible; I like for the story to tell itself.  This method normally works fine, but I admit to feeling completely foolish when I spent most of the movie marveling at how the actor playing Ice Cube was uncanny in capturing his facial expressions, vocal delivery, and yes, his resemblance to Ice Cube, himself.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it must’ve felt like for O’Shea Jackson, Jr. to be playing his own father at about the same age he is now, and live his dad’s life experience both on the Compton streets and on stage?  Apparently unrelated to his avatar, Corey Hawkins as the innovator, Dr. Dre, carries an almost ethereal, apart-from-it-all aura of someone who lives in a world of music.  Jason Mitchell gives his portrayal of Eazy-E an emotional depth to go along with the rapper’s bright-eyed, Puckish sense of humour that makes Eric’s all-too-brief journey and eventual death from AIDS that much more sympathetic.  The middle-aged, paunchy Jerry Heller is played by the middle-aged, paunchy Paul Giamatti, who captures all the nervousness and trepidation that living in the eye of the storm of the birth of Gangsta Rap might entail.  There was a real affinity between Giamatti’s Jerry and Mitchell’s Eric, that felt almost like a parental bond, but that is stunted when we discover that Jerry - who Eric defended to the point of losing his entire group - has somehow cheated all of them.

I say somehow because that is never really made clear, along with several other aspects of the script:  The group’s discontent with Jerry never offering them a straight contract is shown early on, yet we never find out exactly why he allowed this to continue to the inevitable point of the group breaking up?  Also, when Eric does confront Jerry (In a very odd scene where the actors repeat their lines verbatim in what I suspect is an editing gaffe) about the older man’s funky bookkeeping, as discovered by his bright ladylove, Tomica, what exactly does Jerry repeating “This is business” mean?  I wondered if this might’ve been a limitation of having at least some of those depicted onscreen alive and kicking and free to whip out a libel suit?  There is also a strange scene of Ice Cube going to see Eric in his final days in the hospital, but he then makes some noises about not wanting to see him like that, turns around and leaves without paying last respects to the man, who, quarrels aside, did so much for him, to which I thought,”What did you expect when you went there?”

Straight Outta Compton does glide over or flat-out ignore some of the troubling aspects of NWA’s lyrics and indeed rap culture of that period.  The contentious Ice Cube/NWA split is punctuated with Cube’s vitriolic “No Vaseline,” which is his take on how Eazy-E handed control of NWA to Heller, employing the lyric, “you let a Jew break up my crew” amongst other disses.  Later, when asked if he is anti-Semitic, Cube sidesteps the question altogether, opting to act as if he’s being attacked and “sandbagged” by the journalist, and claiming he was anti-Jerry Heller, which is a total dodge.  The irony that an artist who was ignited to creativity by the racist treatment he received all his life, would think it was acceptable to use someone’s religion as a pejorative is never explored. (Sticking to what’s onscreen, I’m not even going to mention other straight-up racist lyrics he’d also recorded deriding other minorities, but they exist.)  Untouched completely is the monolith of misogyny in the NWA lyrical catalog.  Instead, we are shown how the rappers used groupies like tissue paper, in one scene literally tossing them aside in the midst of an orgy while rushing to play a dangerous game of one-upmanship with a lot of very large automatic weapons.  It makes one wonder how they would’ve been received in this age of enforced political correctness via social media.  I suppose Gray counteracts such ugly instances by inserting of Dre’s hard-working mom, and Eazy-E’s smart, devoted wife, Tomica.  However, I cannot say all that and then not admit to chuckling when that disposable groupie scene winds up with the line that’s become a 21st Century meme.

The lack of context of the rap scene of that time is also curious as Gray almost infers that NWA was the first rap act to take on gritty, real-life, real-talk subjects in an incendiary, in-your-face manner.  Although there is an actor briefly seen wearing a Philadelphia Phillies “P” baseball cap, there is no reference to groups like Public Enemy, or earlier examples like Philly’s Schooly D, or Cali’s own Ice-T, who set that pattern.  Then again, the movie is already two and a half hours long.

Still, this is a justified celebration of this group who came from nothing with everything against them to define and bring the message of rage and social injustice to a huge audience, and particularly in Dr. Dre’s case, went on to create a seminal sound and musical legacy that is instantly identifiable.

Exhilarating from its first moments, Straight Outta Compton seizes its viewer and doesn’t let go.  Gray, himself an a insider to hip-hop from both coasts as the go-to director of iconic videos for Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Queen Latifah, Cypress Hill and Tupac Shakur, as well as features The Italian Job, The Negotiator, and yes, Friday,  captures this era like one in love with it.  As mentioned, it is a long film that is somehow shockingly fast as Gray handles the pacing brilliantly and the script balances a good sum of laughs with heartfelt emotion.  As expected, the soundtrack is outstanding, with the NWA concert scenes being powerful and electrifying, but Gray’s placement of the cool and slick dance music of the time also helps brings the period into life.  Entertaining, engaging and emotional, Straight Outta Compton is a truly great modern pop culture biopic.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

August 13th, 2015

 

 

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Stills Courtesy of Universal Pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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