[Ed. Note: So, it's no secret that we're a site that focuses on music. The word music is in the literal name of the site. But, even the most devoted music fans have things that they love in their lives besides music. And that includes me. I'm a movie fanatic. I play too many video games. I have a mild obsession with professional wrestling. And so, I want to introduce you to 'B Sides.' In this new weekly feature, we shine a spotlight on something happening in contemporary pop culture that isn't explicitly music-related...whether that's a new movie, a book that's grabbing everyone's attention, the new season of Game of Thrones...etc. And we thought we'd ease into this new feature with a review of the new music biopic, Straight Outta Compton. Enjoy.]
Early in Straight Outta Compton, the big-budget N.W.A. biopic from director F. Gary Gray (Friday), Andre Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves the recording studio where the film's titular album is being produced. As Dre is having an argument with the mother of his child -- who is sleeping on his aunt's sofa -- a police car rolls by. When the mother of Dre's child departs, the rest of the hip-hop supergroup, of which Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (O'She Jackson Jr.) ,and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) are the nucleus, come outside to investigate what's wrong with their star producer. And that's when the cops come back.
Having noted the young and black Dre in the upscale and white neighborhood which housed Priority Records' studio, the cops -- including a black officer -- accuse N.W.A. of being gang members. As the police are brutalizing and harassing the young rappers, their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) arrives and attempts to defuse the situation. While the black members of N.W.A. have been humiliated and debased by the police just for standing outside the studio, the white Jerry curses at and threatens the police with no repercussions. When the police are finally done intimidating the young rappers, N.W.A. are heading back inside and Ice Cube is angered by the black cop derisively referring to him as a "n*****." He's prepared to respond with deserved fury when Jerry Heller sternly commands him back in the studio.
In 2015, it's hard to imagine a film more timely and necessary than Straight Outta Compton. With cases of police brutality receiving the most attention and public anger they've had since the Rodney King trial, a film celebrating the lives of three young, black men who took the poverty and violence in which they grew up and turned it into a music empire is an act of revolutionary political filmmaking. And in those moments where the film captures the rebellious attitude of the men that made "Fuck the Police" a rap anthem and then uses those moments to reflect back on the tumultuous post-Ferguson America -- though the recent protests and mass arrests following the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's murder means the situation in Ferguson & America is anything but "post" -- Straight Outta Compton is incendiary and hypnotic. But the film's utter failure in regards to its female characters and the ways that it consistently succumbs to the worst cliches & trappings of musical biopics rear their head in consistently disappointing (and often explicitly ugly) ways.
But Straight Outta Compton is at its best as an exploration of the role that brutality and poverty play in the lives of so many young black men in America and the act of political revolution that upsetting the white social order can be. Witnessing the rise of Dr. Dre from a young DJ scraping by while wearing foolish clothes at a Crenshaw disco to the most sought-after producer in America illustrates the repressive social order that people of color in America suffer under (and that few have the opportunity to escape as Dre did). Seeing a Blood pull Ice Cube's school bus over and threaten to kill one of its passengers for throwing gang signs reflects the violence and poverty that birthed the world view of "gangster" rap. Watching Eazy-E escape the battering ram tactics of SWAT teams and vice cops as a young drug dealer showcases the military approach that American police still take in dealing with drugs and what is viewed as "black crime" in America.
And it's in the latter areas where Straight Outta Compton finds its most harrowing and powerful scenes. F. Gary Gray and the script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff do not shy away from the reality of not just the systematic persecution and harassment of black America by the L.A.P.D. in the 80s/90s but how the entire power structure of American politics and American business -- specifically the music industry -- is weighted against people of color still today. Whether it's the L.A.P.D. harassing Ice Cube and his parents just for being outside of his home when another person was being arrested or the Detroid P.D. intentionally instigating a riot at one of their concerts or white record executives getting rich off of N.W.A.'s music and then failing to properly compensate them for their hard work, Straight Outta Compton rarely lets its finger off the trigger of political heat.
The film is also buoyed by its fresh-faced young cast. O'Shea Jackson, Jr. plays his real-life father Ice Cube, and the resemblance begins to reach towards the genetic uncanny valley. O'Shea resembles his father, but they aren't identical, but he's mastered all of his dad's mannerisms -- from the patented Ice Cube sneer to the way his dad could switch from smiling to looking like he's going to beat your ass in a second -- to the point where it becomes mildly disorienting seeing someone that's not Ice Cube himself handling himself physically just as Ice Cube would. And although Dr. Dre is probably the least complex figure in the film, Corey Hawkins layers him with pathos and sincerity so that Dre becomes the heart trying (and ultimately failing) to hold this group of conflicting and larger-than-life personalities together. In a critical scene after a confrontation with Suge Knight, Dre speeds through the L.A. night straight into a confrontation with half the L.A.P.D., and Hawkins' watery eyes and coiled mask of rage perfectly set a scene that could have otherwise been too over-the-top.
But the actor who should be on everyone's lips in the days to come is Jason Mitchell. I rarely like to make proclamations that a star has been born, but Jason Mitchell's transformation into Eazy-E is nothing short of revelatory. It isn't simply that Mitchell captures Eazy's famous quivery voice and "give no f***s" attitude. It's the quiet humanity he imbibes into one of hip-hop's most adored legends. You can see him crawling in his own skin when he steps into the studio to lay down his first rhymes ever on what would become his breakthrough moment, "Boyz-N-The-Hood." His inability to make eye contact with anyone in the film speaks to his severe self-esteem issues, and the way his mouth betrays confusion, betrayal, and doubt when he realizes that Jerry Heller has been stealing from him dives into the way that Eazy was thrown into a world he wasn't prepared for. And, at the end, when he discovers he has HIV and little time to live, his ghostly wail of desperation captures a man that knows his life is at its end.
However, the film's explicit misogyny is impossible to ignore (even beyond the implicit ways that it elides over the group's active misogyny at various points in their careers -- i.e. Dr. Dre's alleged abuse of women). Taking care of his kid and the kid's mother is one of Dre's biggest motivations at the beginning of the film. We see the mother of his child twice, and she's mostly presented as a figure holding Dre back. Dre's strong mother who provided for him is also seen as figure holding him down. There are countless parties throughout the film with a bevy of naked women that are nothing more than mise-en-scene. Two women later in the film who show promise as being strong, developed characters disappear nearly as quickly as they arrive. This is a film about young black men, and I'm not arguing that it needs a female major character. But what women do exist in this film are sexual placeholders at its most generous and negative stereotypes at worst.
At a structural level, Straight Outta Compton is willing to engage in music biopic cliches with almost no self-awareness when they arrive. Minus the scenes dealing with police brutality -- which reach Italian neo-realism levels of authenticity -- all of the dialogue in the film rings of "speechiness." Characters aren't speaking naturally. They're advancing the plot. The film's staging feels more like a superhero film once it leaves Compton than a character drama, and that bombastic staging feels distinctly at odds with the realistic nature of the earlier parts of the film. And the film's focus is all over the place. Is this a biopic? Is it a commentary on the corrupting nature of money on art? Is it a fiery political condemnation of the cancerous remnants of racism in contemporary America? The punches only ever land on the latter. While Suge Knight and Jerry Heller are almost archetypal representations of "evil corporate figure" (though R. Marcos Taylor & Paul Giamatti make the most of those character types), the film's criticisms of the label system are surface level at best.
Straight Outta Compton is ultimately as great and as problematic as the men it mythologizes. Its unflinching reflection of the continuing racial injustices in America is as necessary as anything since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing or John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (though I secretly wish John Singleton had been given a crack at writing/directing this picture). Its performances should shoot its three young leads to the top of Hollywood's must-cast list, and a huge box-office smash with a primarily black cast (and an R rating) is another call to Hollywood that our films needn't be so monochromatic. It's ultimate...filminess works against it as does its treatment of women, but Straight Outta Compton isn't to be missed.