Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Opens August 14
Who woulda thunk, N.W.A. is now more respectable than Bill Cosby! And O.J. Simpson! And Hulk Hogan! And disgraced 80s celebrity X,Y or Z, take your pick! That’s just one possible set of takeaways from F. Gary Gray’s oddly satisfying, assuredly postmodern Straight Outta Compton, but perhaps not the most salient; this film contains multitudes, kids.
The poster for this two-and-a-half-hour birth-of-gangsta-rap flick features the names not of the film’s stars (most notably Paul Giamatti as scheming manager Jerry Heller, Corey Hawkins as the film’s executive producer Dr. Dre, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father, Ice Cube), but members of the seminal West Coast rap outfit upon whom so much adulation and scorn were heaped at the end of the Reagan nightmare. Given the active involvement of the very much living men whom the film represents, the threat of hagiography hangs over the film like a low cloud. So I am surprised to report that this ambitious, decade-spanning romp by a gifted but uneven director who has been known to play video games while cameras are rolling on his sets is stronger than it has any reason to be.
Gray has managed to cobble together his best, most personal film by portraying the men he helped make famous with some of the 90s’ most iconic music videos, filling in their public personas as savvy survivors who stared extreme police harassment, industry corruption and the fears of white America in the face and won anyway. Stretching from the mid-80s, when Eazy-E (a terrific Jason Mitchell) was a drug pusher and Dre was being castigated by his middle-class mother for not pursuing college, through N.W.A.’s formation and rise to superstardom, their run-ins with the police, infighting and eventual disintegration, the film covers a lot of ground. Easy’s death from AIDS on the eve of an N.W.A. reunion and the production of Gray and Ice Cube’s inspired Friday might feel like an afterthought by the time you get there, but the film never fails to hold one’s interest, in part due to the panoramic view of the genre’s rise that the film narrativizes with gusto.
The iconic black musician biopic and its subset, the rap biopic, has been a checked lot, as anyone who recalls 2007’s Notorious or last summer’s Get On Up can attest. As in those films, the winners (i.e. the world famous rap star producers/subjects) get to write their own mythic history while the Suge Knights of the world get, in both this film and Notorious (not to mention Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac), thrown under the bus. That’s life. The bigger story underneath Straight Outta Compton’s corporate-fueled prominence at movie summer’s end is its explicit pushback against anti-ghetto respectability politics, which has gone from disgraceful apologia and fringe revisionism to conventional, easily marketable wisdom in just a few fortnights during an era when police brutality and designed poverty are regularly programmed spectacles. Signs and wonders, man.