Straight Outta Compton: The Great, The Good, and The Really Ugly
As a hip-hop fan that grew up in the 90s I heard a lot about NWA. It was something that was juuuust before my time seeing that the group broke up well before I was even getting a good taste of my first hip-hop record, but their impact was felt all over the landscape. I loved Cube’s movies, heard The Chronic everywhere I went, and Bone Thugz were one of my favorite acts out at that time. It’s these touches that provide the backdrop for what would be the future of rap at the end of Straight Outta Compton; things like this really establish the centerpieces of the film as being Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E.
If I say nothing else throughout this entire ‘review’ (and I use this word loosely), let it be known that this film has a lot of dynamic performances. The best way I could describe SOC is that it’s one of the greatest hip-hop films of all time. If you were a film fan with no knowledge of NWA and you came into this story fresh you’d see it as a great coming of age and stardom story. That’s what gives this movie the most strength (in my opinion); it stands on its own two feet as something that properly gives new fans insight into the careers of these hip-hop legends without assuming anything of its audience.
What I’ll say of it is not so much a recap, but rather a couple of points of interest in my critique of the film. And when I say a couple bear in mind that this is a big movie to unravel, so the two big things I want to talk about here (the performances and the story itself) are HUGE.
First off – All of the performances in this movie are pretty damn good, but the three ‘leads’ in particular do an astounding job of capturing the personality and struggle of Eazy, Cube, and Dre. Jason Mitchell, O’shea Jackson Jr., and Corey Hawkins deserve a lot of credit. Mitchell in particular nails the confidence and charisma of Eazy-E that made him famous. It’s hard to capture a celebrity in the smaller moments, but there were times that Mitchell got the simple touches of Eric Wright down and gave viewers a window into what hanging out with Eazy would be like. The joke cracking, the expressions of loyalty, the small dog that has a tendency to both bark and bite a little too much. It was all there and then some.
Hawkins as Dre was an interesting situation. He doesn’t really look like Dre, but the chemistry he established with Eazy and Cube in the film so perfectly reflected the history that you felt the impact of the decisions he makes throughout his career. When everything breaks down and has to be built back up again you can see how much it weighs on his mind with every interaction he has with his friends. There’s a particular moment in the movie that makes for a very emotional scene between everyone in the group and it could have so easily been reduced to just that, but Hawkins carries that moment throughout a good portion of the movie.
He’s great at showing the light side of his brotherhood with the group members and his family, but he’s also exceptional at the more intense and hurtful moments in Dre’s life. This is something that I’ll bring up later, but for now I’ll leave it alone.
Cube Jr. is just that. To the point that I want them to reboot every Ice Cube movie ever made with him playing all of Cube’s roles. O’Shea is so charismatic as his father that it reminds all hip-hop fans that grew up listening to and watching Ice Cube exactly why the guy became so successful. Cube was a little more than just a scowl back in the day. When I got old enough to check out his albums I was blown away by the talent and the sheer ferocity in his music. I’ll even say that once Cube goes solo in the film you get to really see O’Shea Jr. shine in the role. I’d have been extremely interested to see a biopic just about the days he experienced after the group’s split.
There’s not much more that I can say about this performance other than it’s exactly what you’d expect and want from an Ice Cube portrayal in a biopic. Including a lot more emotional depth and a better range of expression. Younger Cube was a bit lighter hearted than Current Cube. Just a bit.
From this point on the only other huge stand out is Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller. It could have gotten into standard Giamatti fare (which is never a bad thing. The guy is immensely talented), but Paul does manage to get the one thing about Jerry that’s always made him such a conflicting character in the history of NWA: His passion for the group. It’s always been stated that if Jerry loved and believed in nothing else but the money, he always loved and believed in Eazy and his group. Giamatti plays Heller as someone that might not have his head on straight, he might not be the best at producing a fair and balanced label, but he was always a guy that cared. He cared about Eazy, when NWA was with his vision he cared about them, and he cared enough to get their music out there.
In a particular scene with Mitchell towards the end of the movie you can see the conflict between Heller and Wright. The way they both played their parts and the silent resignation between them before finally admitting where things stand between them was brilliant, perfect, and a great cap to the story.
The story of the film is an interesting one. Using the framework of gang violence and rampant police brutality in the late 80s/early 90s one could almost see this as a great snapshot of our history reminding us of these issues today. There’s a lot of this that builds up to NWA’s famous song ‘Fuck Tha Police’ (which essentially serves as the launch point of the film. Not necessarily its climax, but a propelling story point nonetheless). The story never strays from the central story of rallying against the machine and NWA’s reputation for pushing the envelope. It almost makes a lot of the other issues in the group’s rise seem like they’re on a much smaller scale.
This is where I have to present a number of issues I have with the film. For one: MC Ren’s impact on the group’s music is shockingly downplayed. Of course there are other things like The DOC being reduced to essentially a cameo/footnote and Arabian Prince not being in the film at all (as far as I can remember, but Ren is a central member of NWA and is still present at all the press for the film. Was he not consulted more? Was he just okay with his portrayal?
It’s particularly disappointing due to the casting of Aldis Hodge (of Leverage fame). A wonderful actor that wasn’t given nearly as much to do as you would have expected. It’s minor for me to complain that an actor doesn’t get much opportunity in a film when there’s so much else going on, but Ren was contributing damn near half the rhymes on SOC. It’s odd that this fact is kind of spotlighted in a throwaway line of “Ren’s just as good a writer as Cube” (I’m paraphrasing here).
And the final thing I’ll bring to light in this already long presentation: The Dre scandal.
Listen, the absence of Dr. Dre’s domestic violence problem is irresponsible and downright cruel. The lack of the important black women in NWA’s history in general is something that confused me as a viewer and a person that was privy to their history. Even forgetting about what black women meant to NWA, we shouldn’t forget what black women mean to the faces of police brutality, something that still affects our nation to this day. In the wake of so many cases (most notably of recent cases would be the Sandra Bland case) today it seems kind of wrong to only show the young black men struggling with these issues. Young black men that, quite frankly, took a giant shit on black women in the same music that asked people to unite against the system. The same black women that were experiencing these issues with them. The same black women that Dr. Dre brutalized in the midst of his stardom.
This isn’t me trying to take down Dr. Dre or speak against the man’s character (like I have any power there), but rather stating the fact that some really messed up stuff happened and he purposely injured and degraded people without any real consequence. The fact that Michel’le was reduced to only being mentioned during Cube’s No Vaseline in the film and not really present is just…odd. The fact that the Dee Barnes incident was cut from the film is just…odd.
I understand that the original cut of the film was 3 and a half hours, but this trend of men beating on women being cut out of films or glossed over needs to be put to a stop. The same type of thing recently happened in the James Brown biopic. It was just something that people saw and said “oh, guess that happened” and the film moved on. Now, I know that Dr. Dre has apologized for this whole thing, and I know that it was originally in the script as I just mentioned, but that is just Not. Fucking. Enough.
Corey Hawkins acted his ass off in this film, he really did, but a lot of it was made to make Dr. Dre look way more sympathetic than he was. I have no desire to see a woman get beat up on film (Dee Barnes is right about the fact that the ugly truth might be a little too ugly for most audiences), but I do have a desire for honesty. That man worked to make Dre a sympathetic figure, but how much more would it have been to ask him to portray Dre a little more honestly?
You can’t erase the past, that much is true, but if Dre would have included the ugly truth about his abusive past (with the MULTIPLE women he’s harmed) then would we even be having this conversation? It’s hard to say, but at the very least we would have had an open one. If Dre could have gotten that part of his life included in the film and donated a portion of his earnings from this film to abuse victims, given some of his cut to HIS victims, and cautioned the world against this sort of behavior then he wouldn’t have this scandal staring him in the face. The sad thing is that it would all come back to benefiting him and not the women that he’s hurt, but the harsh truth is that’s the business that we’re in today.
It needs to amount to more than a “Sorry. I guess”. It needs to be a bigger statement than that and the only way the apology can have any merit is if you personally express your disappointment without waiting for the glory to absolve you of your guilt. I know a good number of people that aren’t going to see this film because of NWA’s exploitation and disrespect of women (connected to the Dre scandal or not) and I can’t blame them. Behind the over exaggerated rhymes is a dark history of disrespect and cruelty that can really sting for a lot of folks. I loved this movie, hell I thing Straight Outta Compton is still one of the best hip hop albums I’ve ever heard (damning lyrics and all), but we stand to gain nothing by blindly celebrating our artists. In celebrating these people we should still recognize their faults.
Straight Outta Compton is a brilliant film with brilliant work done by all artists involved, but it’s the stories that weren’t told that make me wonder how much more could have been said. As a film? It’s damn near flawless. As a biographical look into the life of NWA? Well, it became a standard glossy biopic in that regard. I’m just lucky that I’m in a position to be disappointed and not marginalized and disrespected by it. Some people don’t get to feel that way.
I hope this wasn’t too long of a read. I hope it was enjoyable for everyone that decided to check it out. Take care and see the movie if you want, don’t see it if you don’t, but don’t judge people for having a conversation that you might not be comfortable having.