Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton
By Ben Gruchow
August 20, 2015

So, we heard your song...

In a sense, Straight Outta Compton sits companionably enough alongside last month’s Amy as a portrait of the musician as distorted through the lens of the media and the public. N.W.A., a late-80s/early-90s rap group comprised of this film’s subjects, is woven into the developmental fabric of the rap and hip-hop industry. Their music is turbulent, galvanizing stuff: the work of artists at their most uncompromising. To the media, and the members of the public content to take stories at face value, they were mostly notable for the growth of “gangsta rap”, and for perpetuating a lifestyle glorifying violence and objectifying women. N.W.A.’s first album, which shares this movie’s title, received critical praise upon release, but it took several years for that recognition - for its emotional volatility and immediacy as much as for its production - to make its way to the parts of the public that weren’t already on board.

Now we have this feature, which charts the course of N.W.A.’s rise to fame with stolidity and evenness. In structure and rhythm, it adheres to a fairly traditional biography rubric: you may not know exactly when the story will progress from worldwide fame to infighting and strife, or what tone that event will necessarily take, but you can feel the screenplay being shaped to fit the framework. It takes little risks in this sense, and much of its time is occupied with observing the crucial points of this structure.

If this were it, if Straight Outta Compton had just given us a token biopic structure and nothing else - especially at an indulgent 147-minute runtime - it would be disastrous. It’s not: What director F. Gary Gray has done here is used a recognizable and even predictable narrative template as support for documenting the emergence of a new, utterly destabilizing and unpredictable group and a new type of artist. In doing so, he’s also added an important angle and factor to an ongoing discussion about race and the abuse of power. The movie is effective, moving at times, unsettling at many others, owing to what happens around the margins of the story.

The film’s performances are all of a piece, completely inhabiting of their characters, and three of them are magnificent: Corey Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. embody Dr. Dre and Ice Cube note-perfectly as a collection of shifting emotional states, both of them acting and reacting to the many events and setbacks and crises without stepping wrong once. With Jackson, the physical resemblance to his father helps. Hawkins has a more difficult task to pull off, in portraying an individual who generally ends up as middleman, and he does so with utter conviction. And while I am uncertain if N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller existed and acted in reality quite in the way he’s presented here, I have no doubts about what Paul Giamatti does with his cinematic iteration. By turns weary and brittle, he serves as a voice in the ear of the major characters, and Giamatti is remarkable at communicating notes of protagonist and antagonist to every sentence.

What the movie nominally does with these performances, in a script sense, is frankly not very interesting; we’ve been through this storytelling territory, and the proceedings are commendable more for the characterizations on display than anything those characters do in a scripted sense. Also aiding here is disciplined filmmaking: every frame has a firm grasp on tone and continuity, and there is no instance I can think of offhand where any member of the cast or crew is giving the movie anything less than their all - and in the case of much of both, “their all” is a hell of a lot.

This helps to carry us past a fairly significant amount of narrative dead weight. I’d wager that Straight Outta Compton could be trimmed, without much effort, by about 10 or 15 minutes just by tightening up existing scenes and shots. If we were to eliminate some of the redundant touches in the storytelling - I’m not sure we need three different scenes emphasizing the disconnect in treatment by the label of Jason Mitchell’s Eazy-E versus the rest of N.W.A. - the film could probably come in at two hours even, fleeter and no less substantive. At least that extra narrative weight is giving us something; under the watch of DP Matthew Libatique, every corner of the film looks authentic and lived-in - the early passages of the film, in particular, establish Compton cinematically with a remarkable degree of fullness in a very short time - and the movie’s aesthetic suits its purpose.

We can’t really go any further into what makes Straight Outta Compton stand out without addressing the elephant in the room, which involves the depiction of racial tension in the time period of the film, and the parallels it has now. The movie has been in development since 2009. I have no idea whether the instances of police brutality and racial profiling that have occurred since then informed the tenor of the movie during production, and I’m not sure it really matters. The confrontations the members of N.W.A. have with police officers here are effective representations of a fundamental divide between communities and cultures, where fear - of oppression, of insubordination, of manipulation - plays a pivotal role in encouraging distrust, disrespect, and then violence.

Straight Outta Compton is not a physically violent film, and the threats of physical violence (whether between police and community members or between community members themselves) are not glorified, but the movie is almost always teetering on the edge of violence, and that tension is sown by that divide - borne in large part from marginalization of and desperation from the members of the community. The actual physical altercations that the N.W.A. members have with police occupy only three scenes, really: two stop-and-frisks, with abusive speech and behavior on the part of the police that’s disquieting for the similarities it has to what we’ve seen in more recent audio and video recordings, and an intense raid sequence that opens the film. The tension of these three altercations, though, roils underneath most of the rest of the film, underlining and even subverting the traditional biographical narrative points.

The last of the confrontations provides the impetus for N.W.A.’s protest song “Fuck tha Police,” which provides the movie a narrative turning point to begin addressing directly the adversarial nature of police forces with minority communities across the country. There’s a tactic employed here of showing enough antagonism and abuse to let the audience draw a fairly straight line from incidents then to incidents now, without becoming heavy-handed or obvious about what it’s doing. There may be a spurious question of how accurate this is, given that the incidents shown in the movie have less objective record than what’s taken place more recently, but artistic license has been granted for much bigger and less deserving reasons. More than anything else, these moments give Straight Outta Compton most of its heft, augmenting the safer storytelling aspects of the movie without unbalancing or upending them.

A fuller exploration into what N.W.A. did for exposing that raw nerve, and giving a powerful and unrestrained voice to a marginalized party, is beyond the scope of the film and this review. So, for that matter, is a fuller exploration of what its members and their music did for its genre. We can debate about whether or not the movie’s use of a safe narrative structure is totally innocuous or a way to communicate a complicated and emotional part of our society and history in a way that’s palatable to a massive audience - but it should also be noted that a movie that follows a well-worn narrative framework shouldn’t necessarily be criticized for it provided that it executes those mechanics well, and Straight Outta Compton follows the traditional biographical narrative about as well as it can be followed. It falls short of being a great film, but it has moments of greatness and truth, and the movie around those moments is handled with care and skill. It deserves to be seen.