“Straight Outta Compton” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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In this fascinating musical biography, five inner-city youths are brought together for a common cause, which is love of music and the desire to become the ultimate voice of young African-Americans alienated by the establishment. “Straight Outta Compton” vividly portrays the rise, fall, and eventual branching out of America’s most influential hip-hop group.

In the late 1980’s, on the take-no-prisoners streets of Compton, young men had to deal with both an ongoing war between Los Angeles’ resident gangs – the bloods and the crips, as well as daily racial profiling from police, who viewed every black male as a threat. Within this neighborhood were bright individuals who would fight back against the oppression, not with physical violence as so often seen today, but rather music – the pinnacle of expression and protest. Dre (Corey Hawkins) spends his nights laying down beats at a local nightclub alongside D.J. Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), where they allow their friend Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to wow the audience with his hard-hit style of gangsta rap, much to the chagrin of the club’s owner who tends to favor “slow jams.”

Realizing that they are hitting on quite a nerve with the public, the three enlist another rapper, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and finally Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) to serve as their front man. After cutting the Dr. Dre-produced single “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” Eazy-E becomes a star and the soon-to-be iconic N.W.A. is born. It doesn’t even take long for Wright to find a manager for the group, the shifty Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who gets the boys signed to Priority records, a label whose top talent just happens to be the California Raisins! (Don’t laugh too hard, they were actually platinum recording artists.) Soon the popularity of Eazy-E and N.W.A. spreads faster than California wildfires, making a presence nationally to disgruntled teens that finally have a voice in the midst of life’s chaos.

They cause controversy with their lyrics which glorified the gangster lifestyle, and tested the limits of free speech in their trailblazing anthem “F… tha Police.” They were even warned by the police in Detroit not to play that song or they would be arrested. For anyone adept at music history, let me just say that they followed in the footsteps of The Doors on Ed Sullivan, and not The Rolling Stones! As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity yet Ice Cube and Dr. Dre begin to wonder why they’re eating hamburgers on the road while Eazy-E and Jerry are dining on Lobster. Oh, did I forget to mention that Eazy-E was the only one with a contract?

New Orleans’ own Jason Mitchell offers a star-making performance as Eazy-E, the man who was favored by management which effectively caused the destruction of N.W.A.; unfortunately it was his reckless lifestyle with women which led to his death of AIDS at the terribly young age of 31. A death, I might add, which brought awareness to the nation that AIDS was not a disease for homosexuals, as some ignorantly believed. Also worth watching is Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, who embodies his father’s character with an uncanny resemblance that tricks the viewer into believing that they are actually witnessing the young days of this superstar on film.

With a lot of ground to cover, the film clocks in at nearly 2 and a half hours. While I would say that it is slightly overlong, I really didn’t mind as there is virtually no filler. The screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff takes us from the pioneering days that preceded the formation of the group all the way through the days of Death Row records and Dr. Dre’s eventual parting of ways with the notorious Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor). Working extremely well are the scenes set against the backdrop of the 1991 riots in Los Angeles. Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set it Off) delivers a timely statement here on the ever-present problem of racial profiling of minorities by police. There couldn’t be a more relevant time for this film’s release than the 1-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, with a deep racial divide taking place in our country concerning the events of Ferguson, MO. We are reminded here that the country was in similar unrest surrounding the beating of Rodney King nearly a quarter of a century ago.

“Straight Outta Compton” pays proper respect to true music visionaries that represented a vast portion of our populace. All in all, what this film successfully shows is that when there is oppression, there is power in response by music. When there is violence that surrounds, music is the mightiest of weapons. And most importantly, when there is tragedy, music is an avenue of healing. These five men, even though they would go their separate ways, remained brothers in the toughest of times when a nation and individual lives could be healed by the undeniable power of music.

*** (three out of four stars)


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