Actors’ emotions are pure; movie’s commercial motives, not so much

This music group biopic has standard features, the humble beginnings, the rapid rise, the artistic and business conflicts, the family tragedies, the manager who’s a staunch supporter and arch betrayer. But this is rap, a seminal group: N.W.A. There’s no getting round the provocative name these initials stand for: “Niggaz Wit Attitudes,” or the title of one of their anthems, and the song that got them a warning from the FBI and arrested in Detroit: “F–k the Police.” They had reason to express this idea. One of the memorable scenes has them surrounded and violently thrown to the ground by cops for nothing more than standing outside their recording studio. They took the worst kind of unjustified police abuse, both before and after their fame.

Fast rhymes and deejay hip hop rose to cultural significance in the Eighties, when they were the fiery, corrosive, provocative expression of the L.A. ghetto, “Straight Outta Compton,” title of N.W.A.’s first album. Compton is a turbulent black neighborhood south of central Los Angeles. But “straight” also implies telling it straight in blunt, revolutionary rhymes that express the rising anger of urban youth. Whether this movie gets its musical history “straight” is another question.
Some of the figures we encounter in their youth and follow through to fame are now practically household names: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dog. Current timing for the release seems painfully appropriate, after Ferguson, when every white liberal has become aware that the police kill black male teenagers on a virtually daily basis, in America, right now, and presidential candidates’ campaign speeches get interrupted by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. We live consciously in the aftermath not just of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots of the early Nineties that happens in the time-frame of this movie, but of Ferguson, Baltimore, and all the explosions of anger. A timely “F–k the Police” line: “police think/They have the authority to kill a minority.”
F. Gary Gray, the director, is a black man from New York. He’s known for The Italian Job (2003),Law Abiding Citizen (2009) and The Negotiator (1998), but he has also directed documentaries and video collections about hip hop and rap artists. He may be from New York, but he should know whereof he speaks. He directed Paul Giamatti, who plays Jerry Heller, the manager, here, inThe Negotiator.
The first few scenes, in their violence, profanity, and their jittery, unclear camerawork, made me want to run from the room. But I stayed, and, while I was alienated by the lyrics (when I could make them out), and my jaw dropped at some of the scenes of high-paid-rapper debauchery, I was moved by the intensity of emotion delivered by the main actors. Particularly impressive: O’Shea Jackson Jr.(Ice Cube’s son) as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre (Andre Young) and the heartbreaking Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E (Eric Edwards).

With N.W.A, we’re at the source of two subgenres. The group was one of the first and foremost exponents of gangsta rap and West Coast hip hop and is among hip hop’s founding fathers. But they can’t be celebrated just as profane spokesmen for citizens’ rights, the First Amendment, and the rejection of police oppression. Gangsta rap bears with it the valid charge that its lyrics dis women and celebrate drugs and crime. It has met with stern disapproval from middle class and older African Americans of all stripes. It’s a tough trade-off. Does it raise high the banner of black male dignity for those young American blacks who are most robbed of their manhood and their future? ? But it does so by projecting an image that’s violent, unlawful, anti-social, and sexist. The movie Straight Outta Compton has been accused of “whitewashing N.W.A.’s racism.” Pop music expert and black film critic Armond White redubs the movie Straight Outta Hollywood, calling it “the year’s most mindless,” guilty of crediting N.W.A. with being “political” when they were merely acting “out of a wild sense that they could profiteer through ‘rebellion.'” White argues that this movie badly distorts hip hop history, glossing over the fact that groups from other parts of the country (Houston, New York) were better and more political than N.W.A.But whether they are playing heroes or villains or a mixture of both, these young actors fill their roles with vibrant life. The emotion they project is a beam of light, they deliver the rap scenes (with the help of expensive staging) with galvanic power, and there are other strong dramatic sequences, some maudlin, like the sudden decline of Eazy-E, some weepy, like his rejection of Jerry, and some just big set pieces like the concerts and orgies.Typical of the genre, the early scenes show us the group’s rough formation. When they go off to perform away, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) has to leave his handsome kid brother Tyree (Keith Powers) behind. Later when Tyree is killed in the ‘hood, Dre, whose woe is heart-rending, bitterly reproves himself for not taking the young man on tour as he’d asked. The movie’s ongoing drama is the business side. Their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) is tough and sleazy but he believes in the group and allows the brothers their provocations, even “Fuck the Police” (which, anyway, just bluntly expresses one of their main ideas). Giamatti, a formerly interesting character actor who has collected one too many pay checks for this kind of role, begins to seem as sleazy as his one-note, manipulative characters. This time he’s Jewish, and the target of Ice Cube’s antisemitism after he breaks away, as does Dr. Dre, both successfully.

Threads come and go, but despite the long run-time, some are left conspicuously dangling. What did happen to Jerry Heller? What happened to Dr. Dre after he was captured by the L.A.P.D. at the end of a wild chase in a fast Italian car? What do other groups and other kinds of rappers think of this group? There is a lot of talk about Ruthless Records, Priority Records, and another gangsta rap label, Death Row Records, but the chronology is fast and loose. It’s never clear what role the big red-clad Compton hoodlum Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) played. It turns out the history and context indeed are not well conveyed. This is a flashy film, impressive visually and technically despite its familiar trajectories, with one intense emotional scene after another, but it arouses many questions and doubts.

Straight Outta Compton is in cinemas 28th August.


Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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