By Kyle Huffman.
In the first scene of Straight Outta Compton (2015), Easy E (Jason Mitchell) barely escapes a drug den being raided by the LAPD. This harrowing sequence feels like something ripped right out of a war movie, as the confusion of overwhelming force scatters the opposition like roaches. But instead of taking place in Vietnam or Afghanistan, the opening of Straight Outta Compton drops its audience in the lowly ghetto of Compton, a theatre of war that Reaganomics willfully sought to ignore and dispose. At first glance, it is an unlikely locale to start a movie about the rise and fall of one of the most influential hip hop collectives of all time, NWA. However, anyone who knows the context from which hip hop sprung from understands the oppressive and often violent environments that made voices like the NWA such vibrant spokesmen.
In many ways, Straight Outta Compton shows how NWA dropped guns and picked up mics, which they inevitably dropped on-stage. The film principally tells the story of Easy E, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) as they navigate their way out of the hood and into the music industry. The rags to riches story of the trio and their grander posse are cautiously guided by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a white music producer who shrewdly sees an opportunity in the expanding market for rap music. As NWA fights its way out of dingy backrooms and into a cross country tour bus, the group pivots itself from being simply entertainers to national megaphones for social justice. Inevitably, petty squabbles and contract disputes threaten to undo the progressive work the group strives for.
The director (F. Gary Gray) and casting director (Cindy Tolan) deserve particular distinction for finding actors who both bear uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts as well as breathing them to life with signature moments that feel genuine. For Ice Cube, the film enlisted the services of the real rapper and actor’s own son, O’Shea Jackson, who delivers a spot-on rendition of his father. Corey Hawkins does a good job of finding the steely artistry that a personality like Dr. Dre brought to NWA and the larger music industry. But for me, the breakout star has to be Jason Mitchell as Easy E. Mitchell, who makes E into the unlikely leader of a national movement. While his intentions and spirit may be true, his inability at times to get out of his own way make him an ultimately self-destructive character. If anything, the movie may have worked better if it would have focused more squarely on Easy E’s journey rather than attempting to be the definitive cinematic telling of NWA. But as Easy E is tragically not around to see himself as roundly represented as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre (with both serving as producers on the film), this calculation is to be expected.
Straight Outta Compton succeeds not only because of its casting but also because of its visuals. The early segments feel like fly on the wall insight into conversations and recording sessions that reflect the young group’s spontaneity, frequently employing hand held cameras and shaky close-ups. As the film transitions to its performance pieces, it makes terrific use of crane shots and quick cutting that give the music created in the late eighties and early nineties new life. Even the use of old news footage gives the film a chance to recreate intense debates about the group’s place in popular culture and role in combating police brutality that sadly sound too close for comfort for what one is bound to hear on the airwaves in 2015.
If only the structure and format of the film were as innovative as its subjects. Straight Outta Compton, for all its daring casting choices and fresh visual approaches, ultimately is a rags to riches, “based on a true story” music biopic, which is beholden to genre clichés as old as cinema itself. The film follows the mold well but does little to break out of it. Moments of inspiration and character introductions come off as slightly choreographed and self-important. Nearly everyone would agree that the “rise” portion of a movie is usually more exuberant and entertaining than the “fall” portion. In this instance, Straight Outta Compton is no different. The first half makes the birth of NWA feel like a landmark moment for both music and the larger popular culture. The second half gets bogged down in legal jargon and even more unsubtle cameos of soon-to-be stars. While these elements are no doubt problems, a film about the birth and evolution of modern hip hop must nevertheless include the fractionalization and corporatization of the medium.
Regardless, Straight Outta Compton works both as an education for a new audience and a celebration for the old hip hop heads of yesteryear. The ideology and mission of NWA does feel at odds with the very notion of a theatrically released film from a major studio. Still, the movie grants an even greater context for the brand of institutional violence and racism that continues to exist in our nation. In that sense, even a filtered, commercial-friendly brand of NWA is preferable to nothing at all.
Kyle Huffman is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Film Studies.