Straight Outta Compton

August 18, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

In its first few minutes, the N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton,” explodes all over the screen, both literally and metaphorically. The tension in those first moments presage well the rest of the film, which tells the tale of the rise of the world’s most influential rap group and the O.G.s (if you can excuse the term) of gangsta rap. Over a long two and a half hours, we follow the rise and struggles of these young artists from 1986 to 1995. We see the streets they grew up on and the experiences that shaped their music. We watch their meteoric rise and the internal conflicts that came with that success. The story is a powerful one and well worth the telling and it is mostly told well here. The story unfolds at a fairly steady pace, seldom lacking for momentum and, despite its length, it never drags. Also, the cast of lead actors (most of whom have only done bit TV parts until now) play their parts well and with conviction. In particular, Jason Mitchell is exceptional as Eazy-E. There is an intensity to him from the first scene of the film until his last, giving a heart-wrenching performance in one of his final scenes. Mitchell is a gifted actor who brought great nuance to a complex character. O’Shea Jackson Jr (playing his father, Ice Cube) was another standout. Perhaps, the uncanny similarities to his father biased me but I was fully taken in by his performance, which felt surprisingly raw and vital for someone who must have essentially grown up very differently from his father. It added to the immediacy of the film that the actors playing Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Suge Knight and others looked so convincingly like the men they played. In fact, they looked so much like those men that it was distracting to me how much Corey Hawkins did not look like Dr Dre. Not that his acting was bad, because it wasn’t; I just found myself displaced looking at him because I was constantly recalling what the real Dre looks like. On a more meaningful note, I felt that the film simplified the band’s early manager, Jerry Heller. As played by Paul Giamatti, he acted like so many recent Giamatti characters. His role in the development of N.W.A was undoubtedly a critical one and yet he seemed to end up serving as a plot device more than a fully developed person. Also, there is an underlying question about the role violent, misogynistic music plays in our culture that hovers around this whole film. That difficult question is only ever looked at here from the artists’ point of view and, while that side of the discussion is valid, it is not the only side. I understand that this film was already trying to tell a large story and did not have time to explore those moral complexities. I am just saying that I noticed their absence.

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