'Straight Outta Compton' is a complex--though not complex enough--exploration of black totality

City Paper

"Straight Outta Compton," the N.W.A. biopic directed by F. Gary Gray ("Friday," "Set It Off," and "The Italian Job") comes at an important time. While it recounts the polarizing (and as recent writing has importantly highlighted, misogynist and abusive) reality rap group's rise to fame in the late '80s and early '90s, it also transcends the members' own experiences and touches on a multitude of topics debated across the country to this day: police brutality, the drug war, friendship, family, gang violence, financial literacy, sexuality, misogyny, "making it," and loyalty.

Throughout the movie, which has now made more than $100 million, scenes and imagery recall the current local and national news cycle: N.W.A. and the groups they influenced scored the 1992 L.A. Riots, capturing its frustration and rebellion, which mirrors recent unrest in Ferguson and here in Baltimore; the names Bush and Clinton pop up throughout, strangely echoing our current presidential race as new 2015 renditions of Bush and Clinton jockey for position in the presidential race; and the way that hip-hop is scapegoated and literally policed in the film (N.W.A. had shows shut down; the FBI sent the group a letter chastising them for their track 'Fuck Tha Police') continues via Fox News criticism, respectability-politics rhetoric, and in moments where rap shows are shut down by the authorities, both locally with Young Moose and nationally with Chicago rapper Chief Keef.

The movie, like the group's music, expresses the totality of the black experience and challenges the notion that rap is all or nothing—that it either has to be all "conscious" or all club-oriented or entirely "gangsta"—and through that, challenges monolithic understandings of blackness. Like rap itself, "Straight Outta Compton" deftly handles contradiction and reconciles opposites.

This is clear from the beginning, as we're introduced to each member's life before rap, differing portraits of young black men looking for a way to escape violence and a severe lack of options. We witness the life of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in the drug game during a fast-paced scene in which he is fleeing from a sting operation, complete with a battering ram, giving the viewer a palpable sense of escaping certain death. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is a visionary virtuoso and nerdy music obsessive who wants to dodge the banality of a desk job and support his new family with something he loves to do, dreaming on a bed of old records, soaking in Roy Ayers' 'Everybody Loves the Sunshine.' Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) is a contemplative introvert writing rhymes about his traumatic experiences with street gangs and the LAPD. Meanwhile, the D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), along with a few key women contributors, remain periphery characters in the film and understudies to Cube and Dre.

The relatively unknown cast gives the film a better sense of authenticity. Will Smith as Dr. Dre just wouldn't have worked, but Ice Cube's son, Jackson Jr., who apparently spent two years training to play the role of his father, rings familiar but doesn't devolve into a cheap impression. Small details are done right as well: Hawkins mimics Dre's mannerisms at the turntables expertly and Mitchell's beautiful, yet tragic portrayal of Eazy-E is a highlight. At certain points in the movie the on-screen chemistry shines through and it feels like a bunch of friends enjoying each other's company as opposed to a multimillion-dollar cinematic production. And R. Marcos Taylor, who plays Suge Knight, the violent record producer behind Death Row Records, will hopefully receive some award nominations for his intimidating, brooding performance.

All that said, as you have undoubtedly read via Dee Barnes' pieces at Gawker, the movie doesn't acknowledge Dre's highly publicized violent encounter with Barnes; as a result of Barnes' writing, he offered a half-assed apology. Moreover, there seems to be no inkling of Michel'le's musical contributions in the movie either. Instead, Michel'le is characterized as just his nagging baby mom as opposed to someone who was a musician in her own right. And in general, it smooths out the group's misogyny. The conversation that has come about as a result is crucial, but nevertheless, the film remains important. "Straight Outta Compton" fills the hip-hop biopic void left by 2009's less-than-stellar Notorious B.I.G. biopic "Notorious," and draws a complex portrait (though not complex enough) of a seminal rap group and of blackness.

"Straight Outta Compton," directed by F. Gary Gray, is now playing.

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