“Straight Outta Compton” Movie Review

    

     Though attempted many times over, no one has successfully come up with a long term solution as to how police departments can effectively fight crime in neighborhoods that are blighted beyond repair.  It’s certainly no surprise that the real life characters who populate director F. Gary Gray’s new film “Straight Outta Compton” don’t like the police and as a result chose to vent their frustrations by becoming self described “street reporters” and inventing the gangsta rap culture that is all to commonplace today.  Of course, the young teens who grow up in low income neighborhoods have plenty more to deal with than just the police.  It seems to me the threat of violence from each other, with the constant gang and drug turf wars, far outweigh anything the police would do to them, at least as it’s depicted in the film.  That said, the story of how the rap group NWA came to be in the late 1980s is a riveting tale that is sure to keep the audiences attention despite a bloated 147 minute running time and the fact the story tends to rush through key moments in time in order to focus on events the filmmakers deemed to be more important.

     When we first meet Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), he’s in the midst of a drug deal that’s about to go south.  Based on the situation he immediately finds himself in, he should probably have counted his blessings when a SWAT team accompanied with an armored battering ram shows up and forces the rival drug dealers to scramble and hide their illegal activities before the police enter.  This allows Eazy-E to escape what might have been certain death at the hands of a competing drug house that clearly wasn’t happy with him.  I’m sure Gray and his screenwriters, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, inserted this scene in order to establish the kind of images that we are seeing in today’s headlines.  The media seems to relish in feeding the fury of the public’s perception of the police and their use of military equipment when taking down armed criminals.  I suppose no one is happy unless the police are required to go into these situations out gunned.  This scene is only the first of many dramatized conflicts between the group and the police, which are written to ensure these sweet little boys are always portrayed as innocent and the police as racist and disrespectful.  Of course, we always know there are two sides to every story and this film clearly tells it from the perspective of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube who serve as the film’s producers.

     Where “Straight Outta Compton” succeeds is when it leaves the political stances against police and authority aside and delves into the grass roots of how these guys achieved both the sound and the lyrics that changed hip hop culture forever.  As a high school aged teen in the mid to late 80s, I was playing hoops while listening to fairly bland rap music from “Run-DMC” and “LL Cool J” who normally rapped about their Adidas or how “bad” they were.  Oh how things changed the first time I listened to “Boyz-n-the-Hood” with its glamorized talk of sex, drugs, and drive by shootings.  And yet, the scenes in which Gray depicts the early days in which Eazy-E, Ice Cube (played here by his real life son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) rent a recording studio with Eazy-E’s drug distribution proceeds and begin toying around with the various combinations of Dre’s sound and Cube’s lyrics has the feel of the beginning of something special.  To my previous point of how clean rap was prior to these guys, Gray stages a scene in which an established rap group is brought in to perform Cube’s lyrics, but they scoff at the content and dismiss it as trash.  This was clearly the start of something bigger then themselves.

     Ironically, if “Straight Outta Compton” reminded me of anything, it would be the recent Beach Boys and Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”.  Never mind the fact Paul Giamatti appears in both films in what is essentially the same role, a greedy manager who appeals to the group in their early years but they find out later he didn’t exactly have their best interests in mind.  It is when Easy-E meets Jerry Heller (Giamatti) that the group begins to take off and soon they produce what would become their groundbreaking album aptly titled “Straight Outta Compton” after the now famous song.  The film’s second act is much like the second act in both “Love and Mercy” and “Almost Famous” in that we are front and center as the group performs on tour and deals with the temptations that come with sudden fame and riches.  Aside from the fact their lyrics are laced with hard core profanity and graphic sexual depictions, the group certainly wasn’t shy about living exactly what they were rapping about as the film features numerous scenes in which the characters host massive orgies and drug parties everywhere from hotel suites and tour buses to the infamous Easy-E Wet and Wild parties that were a sight to behold.  With all of this being highly publicized and the group gaining a legion of followers and fans in every city they toured, it’s no wonder parents became concerned with their kids listening to NWA’s music, especially when their brand began to transcend from the target audience of low income minorities to suburban white males.  The third act is comprised mainly of the group’s constant contract squabbles and subsequent break up, as well as the untimely death of Eazy-E when it was discovered he had AIDS.

     I suppose there are a number of ways to look at the most controversial track on their debut album, “F*** the Police”.  On one side, an argument could be made that it was an exercise in free speech as these young black males became more and more frustrated with the way they felt they were being treated by the police in their neighborhoods, the LAPD in particular.  The song could be viewed as a non violent way to express themselves, which is likely a better route than taking out their frustrations in a violent manner.  The film goes to great lengths to indicate the group never resorted to violence in any way, choosing instead to handle their business with their words out in the open and usually on stage and in public.  The other side of the argument says a song like this has the potential to incite violence and cause a widespread disrespect for law enforcement which in turn makes their job much more difficult.  I mean, lets face it.  Very few people who have regular contact with the police come away with a favorable view of them if for no other reason the contact is always going to be for a negative reason.  If you never have a positive interaction with someone over time, are you gonna be looking forward to the next time you see them?

     One of the scenes in the film that was particularly troubling to me in a “many of the details were likely missing” sort of way is a brief encounter the group has with the police in Torrance, California during a recording session.  The thing most people will overlook is whether or not the police were called to the area by a complainant for suspected gang activity.  As the scene is depicted, we see the five members of NWA outside of the recording studio taking a break on the sidewalk and doing nothing that would be considered breaking the law.  Suddenly, two police cars pull up and order all of them to go to the ground.  The methods used by all of the police involved are clearly brimming with a racist and elitist tone, which leads the group to fire back verbally.  This escalates the tension as all of the cops, one of which is a black police officer, move into a mode in which they will not allow the group to gain the upper hand.  When their manager, Heller, comes out and sees what has transpired, he blows up into a very carefully worded rant against the police, spewing dialogue about “his clients” and the fact they are “artists”.  All of this is true, and the way the cops speak to the group during their initial contact is unprofessional and completely out of line; however, Dre, Cube, and the crew do themselves no favors with their lashing out against an entity they clearly hate and they make the situation worse by not simply cooperating.  Fact is, if that was a police call for service and someone called the police department reporting gang activity in front of that building, then the police have the duty to respond and investigate.  Sometimes I wonder if the other side understands that.  Sometimes I wish both sides would realize that if you communicate with one another with respect, these contacts would go a whole lot smoother.

     If the members of NWA are looking for someone to blame for the constant unrest between police and minorities, they should look no further than the same media who are shown in the film as a major force in degrading the group and everything they stand for.  Last year’s great film “Nightcrawler” made this point rather effectively with a story of a freelance videographer selling live footage of violent robberies and grisly car accidents to the highest paying news station.  The news station’s directive to him was crystal clear when they tell him they would pay top dollar for crimes against affluent white people committed by minorities.  For the media, if it bleeds it leads and there is nothing better today than a story of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black suspect.  Dre and Cube want you to believe their story was the beginning of the movement against police that we see today, but in reality none of these issues would gain any traction unless the media, looking to increase ad buys and ratings, plugged them in as the lead story on a daily basis. 

     There’s no denying there are racist cops out there who have done plenty of things to tarnish the badge.  What with scandals like the Rampart Scandal in which it was found there were gangster cops robbing banks, doctoring reports, and claiming to belong to various gang sets, and the Rodney King beating and the resulting L.A. riots, which is an ongoing news story during the film’s second half, how can it be denied that some wrong has been done?  On the flip side, NWA’s assertion that their listeners should all “F*** the Police” does nothing to help heal old wounds, nor does it help society cope with new ones, especially today.  Certainly, they don’t like it when an age old racial stereotype that all young black males are gang members is applied to them.  How do you think the police feel when those same young black males dehumanize every cop and assume that all of them are crooked?  If you believe yourself to be so smart, why not offer intelligent solutions?  Are they saying that if you took the police out of South Central Los Angeles when they were growing up, everything would have sorted itself out as far as crime and poverty?  It’s a conversation I would love to have with Cube and Dre, who today, now some 25 years later, sit atop the hip hop world having made hundreds of millions off of selling $200 fashion headphones that are marketed to young minorities who can’t afford them and starring in family friendly PG rated movies that would never have you believe the actors once wrote songs about killing police officers (estimates have Dre’s net worth at $700 million and Cube’s at $140 million respectively).

     Their politics aside, the story of NWA and their creation of the “gangsta rap” genre is a fascinating ride through the late 80s and early 90s which spawned many of the big stars we listen to today such as Eminem and Snoop Dogg.  There’s no denying the power of seeing visually how this music was created and what inspired them to do so.  I wouldn’t say necessarily that I was rooting for these characters to succeed as some kind of “we made it out of the hood” success story and by no means is this a way for every under privileged kid to make it.  Fact is, the odds of that happening are probably about the same as someone striking it rich playing in the NBA or NFL.  But the way the story unfolds for these guys does make for an interesting and highly entertaining story.  For Gray’s part, the film is well made in nearly every aspect and is extremely well acted.  Even if you don’t agree with them or enjoy their music, there’s plenty here with enough historical significance to justify a look.  GRADE: B