Straight Outta Compton
On April 29, 1992 four police officers were acquitted for use of excessive force in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, sparking widespread outrage and inciting the Los Angeles riots. The high-profile trial punctuates Straight Outta Compton as just one of many of the film’s many portrayals of the institutionalized racism that inspired N.W.A.’s seminal and inflammatory “Fuck tha Police.” From Compton to Torrance to Detroit, the group is routinely harassed by white cops and the “black police showing out.” For portraying events more than 30 years old, the jarring scenes helmed by director F. Gary Gray are dishearteningly topical today, as we just passed the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.
Compton follows the formation, rise, and eventual fracturing of N.W.A., the legendary hip-hop group whose influence is still readily apparent today. It not only honors the group’s legacy, but also humanizes the young men behind it and explores the oppression that fueled them. Police are inescapable from that story.
Early on we see Ice Cube, played by his remarkably identical-looking son O’Shea Jackson Jr., aggressively searched in front of his helpless parents shortly after his first scene with Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). And one of the film’s strongest scenes comes shortly after as the group records its first album in Torrance. Taking a break outside the studio, the group is slammed to the pavement for the mere crime of looking like gangbangers. Their anger is palpable but can’t be expressed to the full extent like Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who remains unrestrained because white privilege. It’s only after their pride has been stripped and the entire art form of hip-hop disparaged that they can vocalize their frustrations fully by recording “Fuck Tha Police,” the “reality rap” that provoked a warning from the FBI and the performance of which prompted the group’s arrest in Detroit.
Police brutality aside, Compton is far from grim. It plays surprisingly humorous as it delves into the characters of Dre, Cube, and, particularly, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). (Ditto for DJ Yella, MC Ren, and The D.O.C., but their appearances are largely muted.) These were friends first and foremost, which we see as they clown each other throughout the whole ride. Dre and Cube can’t help but laugh during Eazy’s feeble first attempts at rapping “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” The joy dutifully captured by the actors makes it all the more heartbreaking when Cube leaves the group and Dre eventually follows.
Mitchell flourishes as the larger-than-life, Napoleonic figure that was Eazy-E—mastering his effortless cool and sudden outbursts of defiance. But he’s at his best when Eazy’s at his worst, panicking as his empire crumbles post-split and hysterical when he’s diagnosed with AIDS far too late for treatment. The actor shines so bright it’s frightening to think of what the film would have been had Mitchell not been able to do his callback audition via Skype because he was too broke for a plane ticket.
Also inescapable from N.W.A.’s story is the (often seedy) pull of Jerry Heller, played by the scumbag master Giamatti. The film never quite goes for the jugular, but Heller’s underlying shade is apparent throughout. Sitting in the dark below a dimly lit light, he’s more of a don than a manager during his contract “negotiation” with Cube. The ultimatum is laid down: sign the contract if you want your $75,000. Cube, of course, rage quits as a matter of principle. And that righteous stubbornness is carried by Jackson Jr. to his disputes with his record label and antagonistic journalists. But while he nails his father’s anger, Jackson Jr. doesn’t quite have the same chops for grief as his co-stars Mitchell and Hawkins, the latter of whom gets to show off those skills twice, with the death of E and Dre’s younger brother.
Hip-hop heads will appreciate Compton’s attention to detail, including the painstaking research that went into Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay, the small references that mean so much more than their offhandedness implies (look out for a devastatingly funny Friday nod), and short but sweet Snoop Dogg and Tupac appearances that nail their mannerisms (have we found the stars for their respective and inevitable solo films?). Even the concerts and studio recordings have their own authentic, distinctive feel.
You don’t have to be a fan to appreciate Compton, though. An emotionally rich narrative has been plucked from the hip-hop annals with masterful acting to match. Hip-hop biopics have a history of underwhelming, but Straight Outta Compton proves rewarding for viewers of any background.
Except, perhaps, police.