Straight Outta Compton – 2015
Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay by Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, R. Marcus Taylor, Keith Stanfield
Straight Outta Compton is a story I needed to see. I knew nothing about most rap in the 90’s, even though my music collection was vast. The Replacements spoke more to my experience than did the Los Angeles culture that created the first sounds of discord that I noticed in the post Civil Rights era. If this and Boyz N Tha Hood are all I ever know about that scene, I am sure I will be missing something. But I am understanding a little more than I did.
First things first. This is a very good film. Almost great. And there are some fantastic, and very real performances, worthy of Oscar nominations. First on that list has to be Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. He takes what was, to me, the most unapproachable character of the group and makes him totally human, without sacrificing the edge that made him seem so dangerously disreputable. The film wisely takes a multi-dimensional view of E and it helps round out the story immensely. Yes, this guy is fraught with problems. Yes, he was taken for a ride because he was placed half a step up from his band mates. Yes, he was capable of redemption. One thing they fail at in developing his character is to largely ignore the things that led him to die of A.I.D.S. at 35. Mitchell’s performance overcomes this, however, and still provides the most dimension to the overall story.
As Dre, Hawkins is given perhaps the least to work with. Yeah, we see the talent, and we witness his struggles to show his artistic potential. We see the barest glimpse of his family life, and, for the most part, he comes out looking like a saint amongst sinners. Too good to be interesting, unfortunately. More unfortunately, he leaves out any reference to his many incidents of abusing women. If Dre the producer thought that leaving this out would help his marketability, he failed. He addressed it in Rolling Stone after the film was released, but the omission is too glaring to give the movie a pass, especially in an art form that is notorious for its misogyny.
Cube’s son, Jackson, Jr. fares better in a deceptively straightforward performance. He nails Cube’s bottom line personality, as well as his incredibly lyrical prowess. His business acumen is legendary, and we get a good view of its early stages. Cube has always been a favorite actor of mine, and his son completely captures the essence of his father. It’s not just that he looks pissed. It’s showing with complete subtlety why he is pissed.
Brown, Jr. and Hodge give a good rounding out of the rest of the group. In watching their performances, one gets a legitimate view of who they were as people, ultimately loyal to Eazy-E. A telling scene is watching their reaction to Cube’s No Vaseline. Yella (along with E) can’t be too pissed to recognize the genius. While Ren is beside himself with rage. Dre sits back and takes it all in. This scene is integral to understanding all the players as people.
Giamatti is remarkable yet again as Heller. He manages to make him seem sleazy and legitimate at once. His character is key in that it is he around whom everyone revolves. Walking that thin grey line between right and wrong as the viewer gets to choose with whom they sympathize. Cube smells a rat and bails. Dre falls under the influence of Suge Knight temporarily, and Eazy E stays a little too long. His character is so nuanced, its tough to tell who is right. Gray and the screenwriters really win on this point.
This is the second best work that Gray has done, after The Italian Job. The only thing that is lacking is the honesty about the brutality of some of its subjects. If we were to believe the script as directed, the only violent one in the story is Knight. That is a missed opportunity for depth, which is a true surprise, since one of the writers is a woman.
Ultimately, this film is a winner in telling part of the truth of the life of those in the communities out of which rap was berthed. It joins the lexicons of the integral works representing a time I am still learning about, even if I missed a good chunk of it while living through it.
(**** out of *****)