Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

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Chronicles the lives of rap artists NWA through the founding of their band and their rise to fame.

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F. Gary Gray, 2016

Living in Compton, California, in violent neighbourhoods dominated by gang wars, we meet the founders of gangsta rap group NWA. Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) is a drug dealer, Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) lives at home with his mother, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, son of the real deal) is a high schooler who is harassed by police. They meet when Eazy bring MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to a club where Dre works alongside DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr). Dre and Eazy work together to create a label, but when they can’t find performers for their songs they decide to record them themselves. Their first song is a hit, attracting the attention of slightly sleazy music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). As the group’s popularity and success rise, they find themselves at the centre of central controversies and the target of FBI and police. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, the group starts tearing itself apart from within, conflicts arising over Heller’s dodgy management. Their fast living and short tempers threaten not only their careers, but their lives.

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Straight Outta Compton is a short, brilliant film spliced into an overlong, overblown, and overly sanitised nearly-3-hour marathon. There is a lot of potential in this film. It has a talented young cast, a dark, gritty aesthetic that suits the subject matter, and some cleverly written and directed scenes that are absolute standouts. An early concert scene is long but electric, with the threat of police retaliation hanging over the group like a guillotine. Watching the group come together and deal with their meteoric rise to fame and notoriety is fascinating, with the oppression and harassment they face and their behaviour in light of it providing some excellent tension. The movie just goes on for so long that at some point you become completely desensitised to most of what happens. One scene blends into the next, with far too many slice-of-life scenes that add nothing to the narrative. It meanders hopelessly, lacking focus. It also sanitises the group’s notoriously terrible treatment of women. In this film women are decoration, accessories, rarely given any agency or roles beyond “hot sex object”, “nagging mother”, or “nagging wife”.

The talented young cast manages to keep the film afloat, though, with one of the most powerful scenes being delivered by Jason Mitchell towards the end of the film – anyone familiar with the history of NWA can probably guess what that scene was. As someone completely unfamiliar with the group, it was an interesting history lesson for me personally. Watching gangs menace school buses full of children is a disturbing look into life in a dangerous neighbourhood, and gives some insight into the mindset of men who are frequently unlikeable. In spite of the ludicrous runtime, the film doesn’t devote much screen time to MC Ren or DJ Yella (the latter of whom I had completely forgotten by the time I sat down to write this review, and the former of whom I may have forgotten if it weren’t for my love of Aldis Hodge). There’s some very disturbing stuff in the film’s latter half thanks to the imposing R. Marcos Taylor as the awful Suge Knight, but even that is overdone. O’Shea Jackson gives a compelling performance as his own father and Paul Giamatti lends dramatic weight to the proceedings, but it’s Jason Mitchell’s arrogant, volatile Eazy E that steals the show. He’s magnetic when performing, but it’s his dramatic moments that really land. It’s a shame that they’re so padded by pointless, endless scenes that lose interest. Perhaps the remaining members of NWA should have pulled back and allowed the filmmakers to create a more realistic portrayal of them; it may have led to a real classic.

Straight Outta Compton on IMDb

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