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