Scott F. Evans
My name is Scott F. Evans and I HATE ‘Gangsta Rap.’
Let’s be clear: I love hip Hop… or at least I used to love H.E.R. And it’s no secret that I blame a lot of the genre’s downward spiral on groups like NWA. Not that they purposely or even personally helped drive the genre into the ground. They didn’t. They were artists with a very particular -and in some cases- valid point of view. Whether I liked it or not is irrelevant. But it was what came after, what NWA helped pave the way for: the nihilistic irresponsibility, the misogyny, and the celebration of drugs and gang culture that spread across my beloved music like a California wildfire. The problem comes when that specific perspective becomes the prevailing one for the entire genre, and by extension, the people who created it. NWA was hugely popular, and unarguably influential. For better and worse, they helped change the face of Hip Hop.
But this review isn’t about NWA. It’s about F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton.
As biopics go, the film is pretty close to exceptional. It hits all the right notes at all the right times. Gray keeps the pacing fairly brisk. Even though we sometimes get lost among the faces and events, he knows how to stop down and pull us back in with great character moments. The smartest choice Gray makes is never turning NWA into icons, and allowing them to be humans. There’s definitely some revisionist hero worship here, but he grounds the entire piece with an overall empathy for these characters. A lot of that credit must go to his solid cast. He wisely cast this with new faces, so we’re never distracted by celebrity. And despite their freshness, the actors all perform admirably. There’s not a phony performance in the bunch.
Straight Outta Compton, produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright, is about NWA but the story is mainly focused on E, Dre, and Cube. The other founding members, MC Ren and DJ Yella get shunted off, perhaps unfairly, to supporting status.
Corey Hawkins is solid as Dre. A lot of his work is low-key and internal. Plus he’s often hidden behind a cap pulled low over his eyes so he doesn’t always register. O’Shea Jackson Jr. does a spot on impression of his real-life father Ice Cube. Sounding and looking just like his father helps the neophyte actor over some iffy moments, but director Gray wisely limits the character’s emotional spectrum. Jackson is getting a lot of attention for playing his father, but this film belongs to Jason Mitchell, who turns in an exemplary performance as Eazy-E. Mitchell should at least get a Best Actor nod at next year’s Oscar’s. He’s that good. He takes a character that could’ve easily been misplayed by a lesser talent and infuses him with humanity and dimension. He’s affable and energetic, but never once over the top. Again, Mitchell is that good.
If Straight Outta Compton has a fourth lead, that would be the group’s manager Jerry Heller, expertly played by Paul Giamatti. If you’re unfamiliar with Heller’s role in the group, and how things turn out, Giamatti’s performance keeps you guessing.
Yella, played by Neil Brown Jr. gets in some scene stealing moments, serving primarily as the film’s comic relief. Unfortunately Ren, well played by Aldis Hodge, almost fades completely into the background. He’s in almost every scene featuring the group, but he never gets to shine.
Credit has to be given to Straight Outta Compton’s screenplay. Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the script crackles with tight, snappy dialogue that flows from the actors mouths with ease. There’s a refreshing wryness on display here that’s usually missing from Black cinema.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does OK work on the film. He shows some beautiful movement with cranes and steadi-cams for certain scenes that really serve to increase Straight Outta Compton’s production value. Unfortunately other scenes feature really jarring handheld work that makes the moment feel rushed as if the camera operator was still trying to frame the shot. Many of the scenes feel under-lit as well, losing detail in muddy imagery.
Straight Outta Compton’s music is, of course, amazing. Regardless of what you might think of the lyrical content (even with it being more than two decades old), the craftsmanship is remarkable. And that includes the incidental tracks from all of the different artists who influenced Dr. Dre’s productions.
I went in expecting this film to be a tough sit. A two and a half hour biopic about Hip Hop’s preeminent ‘gangsta’ rappers was going to have to work hard to win me over. And there are some problems. After Cube departs from the group the film starts to feel patchy, rapidly bouncing from episode to episode. There’s still a lot of story left to tell, and the film doesn’t seem to know how to fit it all in. So it rushes to an ending that’s a little too self-congratulatory. But I challenge you to name a biopic that doesn’t have the same issues.
All said, Straight Outta Compton is a terrific film and a welcome break from typical summer fare.