Looking Back at 2010s Films: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

11 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about the major anti-authority movie of 2015. No, it’s not “The Big Short.” Instead, it’s “Straight Outta Compton.”

Do I even need to describe this one? This film was a big hit because no one needed to tell them it wasn’t going to be.

For those few who don’t know, it’s basically a two-and-a-half-hour tribute to NWA, a group of young rappers who became famous for what was dubbed “reality rap,” mostly reporting on the horrid things they saw on the streets in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Young black men would get stopped and even handcuffed by police even for the mere act of standing there.

Oh, how far we haven’t come…

“Straight Outta Compton” is a conventional biopic, which is both its main strength and its main weakness. We know the drill–the early days starting out with big ambitions, creative people getting together to make some magic, getting a big break, moving to big performances, the introduction to the downfalls of fame, the controversies, the fighting, the breakups, the tragedies…..let’s face it, it all sounds familiar. I guess just about every celebrity goes through it all one way or another.

But why do we keep watching music biopics? Because even the same stuff is different for everybody that goes through them. And if it’s told well with interesting characters and smart writing, we still get something special.

The first hour-and-a-half or so has the best parts of the movie. It’s interesting to see how these kids start out–Eazy-E is a drug dealer, Dr. Dre performs his mixes wherever he can, Ice Cube is writing lyrics on the school bus, and so on. And it’s great to see them work together, such as in this clip where they lay down a track for the first time.

The second hour or so is the least interesting, as we see the gradual fall of NWA. But it still does consist of compelling material, such as what NWA has become after many of them have left to do their own thing, the hustling manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) continues to show favoritism towards E, and Dre teams up with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, very chilling), and then…tragedy strikes.

Yeah, the film does drag from time to time. But strangely, when the credits roll, and we get the real-life footage of the actual NWA, I find myself thinking, “Yeah…that WAS good! In fact, I think it should’ve gone on longer!” Director F. Gary Gray (who also directed the Ice Cube-penned “Friday”) and screenwriters Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff (who were nominated for an Oscar for their script) clearly had a story to tell and were going to try hard to create one of the best music biopics ever made.

All the actors are terrific. Jason Mitchell is winning and charismatic as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins is a solid Dr. Dre, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube…you know, now that I’ve seen Jackson in other movies since “Straight Outta Compton” (“Ingrid Goes West,” “Long Shot”), I don’t have to see him as “Ice Cube’s son” but “O’Shea Jackson Jr., a very talented actor.” That just makes his performance as Ice Cube (his own father) all the more interesting. He’s great here.

And, uh…OK, let’s address the elephant in the room. Because the real Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are among the film’s producers, there’s no mention of Dre’s publicized violence against women. But…at least they don’t try to make the NWA members into role-model types? I dunno, it is a bit disconcerting that a lot of the real important negative attitudes are either merely glanced at or ignored entirely.

But then again, it’s not really about that; maybe it’s simply about the impact these people had on culture, telling the truth the best way they knew how and becoming famous for it. And as such, it’s a pretty solid film.

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