Straight Outta Compton (2015)
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and Paul Giamatti.
Directed by F. Gary Gray.
With a running time of two hours and twenty-four minutes, Straight Outta Compton still feels a little short, although I’m imagining that only long-time fans of N.W.A. will think so. Younger fans who aren’t as familiar with the story of the gangsta rappers will probably think it’s just about the right length, if not slightly too long in the attention it gives the post-N.W.A. life of founding member Eazy-E (whose widow is one of the film’s producers). The film covers a lot of ground, from the days leading up to the group’s formation through its early success, its arrest in Detroit for performing “F*** tha Police,” its untimely breakup, and the later successes of Ice Cube as a solo artist and Dr. Dre as a groundbreaking producer.
Yet many of the stories dramatized here are already well known. What’s missing is some resonant presentation of these guys as friends. What were the relationships really like, and who were these guys as people? When Eazy meets Ice Cube in a nightclub, the moment is at first tense, but as the artists give each other enormous hugs, there’s a relief in both their eyes, a kind of righting of wrongs that rings true even though there’s not enough in the film for that to be the payoff. Eazy suggests that the guys get back together, and Cube says, “If Dre wit’ it, then I’m wit’ it,” and you realize that you understand the sentiment, but you’re only really accepting it on faith or based on some other knowledge you came to the theater already possessing, not because of anything the film has already shown you. This is the film’s greatest omission, the relationships away from the group, although if you’re a fan, you’ll also be taken aback by how little a role in this story is played by M.C. Ren, thought by many to be the best rapper in the group. If you didn’t know anything about Ren going into the film, you still didn’t know anything when you left the theater.
I’ll tell you what, though: the stories this film does tell are terrific, and the performances are strong. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is more than passable portraying his real-life father Ice Cube, and if there’s a character the script does try to delve into, it’s Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins. Here are five young men making an effort to create something, motivated partly by wanting to get out of the cycle of violence they see around them every day, and partly by the need to express the rage that’s inspired by that violence. When these young men are warned against performing that song by the Detroit police, there’s never a second’s doubt that they’ve only got one option, and as the tension builds, leading up to that moment, you can’t help taking their side, even if you remember having mixed feelings about it when you first read about that story in your college newspaper. It’s the film’s best scene.
Okay, I have one other, much smaller criticism of the way this film is put together, and it’s the conspicuous absence of a full-length performance of the song whose title gives this movie its name. We see and hear snippets of it, mostly Eazy-E’s part, but come on. Viewers who are seeing some of this stuff for the first time should be shown what the big deal is with this song, and those of us who already know it should have the opportunity to relive it in some semblance of context. Leaving out this obvious detail is a huge disservice to the effectiveness of this film.
I don’t have teenagers of my own, but if I did, I would make them watch Straight Outta Compton.