The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Straight Outta Compton

It's impossible to overstate the importance of N.W.A. in rap music. The group existed during that magical time in the late '80s and early '90s when rap wasn't afraid to be overtly social and/or political. In fact, they – along with Public Enemy – spearheaded that movement. N.W.A. songs were graphic, no-holds-barred depictions of what was happening in inner cities at that moment. It wasn't always easy for people, especially in White America, to hear the messages of songs like "Fuck Tha Police," (which detailed police brutality), but the power with which N.W.A. performed them couldn't be ignored. The story of this amazing, controversial group comes to the screen in F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton, named for the group's debut album.

There were five members of N.W.A. but the film focuses largely on three of them: DJ/producer Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), rapper/lyricist O'Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played by Ice Cube's own son, O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), the drug dealer who finances their first record and ends up rapping on it. (MC Ren and DJ Yella are supporting characters.) From there, a wide swath of the group's career is depicted, from their quick success and even quicker controversy to the way their shady business manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), helps to drive Cube out of the group, thereby leading to one of the most notorious feuds in rap history. The back half of the film shows what happens to the members after their eventual split, including Dre starting Death Row Records with Suge Knight, Ice Cube beginning a foray into movies, and Eazy-E battling AIDS.

The early scenes of Straight Outta Compton incisively show the group at the forefront of a musical revolution. Their songs portray life as they see it. Drive-by shootings, mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement officials, and similar things are their inspiration. These topics make them a threat to the establishment. The film's signature (and most exhilarating) scene finds them defiantly performing their famous anti-police song in concert, after local cops expressly order them not to under threat of arrest. At the time, the mainstream news media portrayed N.W.A. as “dangerous” and “irresponsible,” but the movie makes it clear that they were intelligent, thoughtful young men just as intent on speaking the truth (as they saw it) as they were in enjoying the decadent pleasures of fame. A lot of emphasis is placed on the brotherly bond between them. A shared worldview unifies them musically; only the dark realities of business drive them apart.

F. Gary Gray was an inspired choice to direct the movie. In addition to having helmed Ice Cube's Friday and several of his solo music videos, he clearly understands the impact N.W.A. had. Although a lot of ground is covered by the plot, Gray keeps it tight and focused, balancing the overall arc of the group's career with more personal moments. Under his guidance, Straight Outta Compton suggests a hip-hop alchemy, as these strong-willed individuals compliment one another in a way that allows magic to happen. The director also knows how to achieve a sense of fun. Musical sequences are often staged in long, unbroken takes, with the camera swooping around the stage liberally. The energy and excitement of a rap show is captured with foot-tapping mastery.

As fascinating as the N.W.A. story is, Straight Outta Compton wouldn't work if we didn't care about its members. The performers are outstanding all the way around, with Jason Mitchell (Contraband) the standout as Eazy-E. The actor deftly conveys the often contradictory nature of the man he's playing. Eazy-E is a drug dealer, but also a businessman. He's a gangsta, but also a loyal friend. He's no one's fool, but also susceptible to Jerry Heller's savagely shrewd practices. This is a great performance from an actor to watch. Corey Hawkins is also good as Dr. Dre. He captures the vital notion that Dre is a musical genius, able to manipulate beats in a forceful manner that adds to the inflammatory nature of the songs. He couches N.W.A.'s lyrical anger in catchy grooves. As Ice Cube, O'Shea Jackson is a revelation. He's nearly a dead ringer for his father, yet this is no mere imitation. Jackson embodies the anger that fueled Ice Cube's best rhymes. In the actor's most effective scene, Cube seethes about being harassed by cops, then immediately turns that rage into a song.

Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Straight Outta Compton can't fit in every notable moment from its subjects' careers. (Dr. Dre's 1991 beating of journalist Dee Barnes is a notable exclusion.) Also, the female characters are all one-dimensional background figures. Those flaws aside, the movie is a passionate examination of a group that changed the very face of rap music. It's an energetic, continually engaging biopic. If you don't know the N.W.A. story, you'll be fascinated by its many twists and turns. If you do, you'll admire the respect with which it's told.

A quote from the song that provides the film with its title jumped into my mind as the end credits began to roll, so I'll end this review with it: Damn, that shit was dope!

( 1/2 out of four)

Straight Outta Compton is rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 27 minutes.

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