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Straight Outta Compton (2015)

August 20, 2015

Starring: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off, The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen)

Bottom Line: I can still remember when my mom took my Dr. Dre The Chronic CD in disgust and hid it from me all the way back in 1993. I can also remember her driving me to Blockbuster Music to buy Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle just a year or two later. Go figure. Regardless of how ambiguous my parents were about whether or not I should be listening to gangster rap music when I was just becoming a teenager, they made one thing abundantly clear: rap was crap and there was no way it would last. Well, it’s 25 years later and not only has hip-hop become one of the most financially lucrative genres of music in the entire industry, but we are getting Straight Outta Compton, a biopic detailing the rise and fall of the pioneering rap group N.W.A. – a movie that is generating early Oscar buzz from a group of voters that probably used to make my parents look like radicals.

I loved it. As a hip-hop aficionado, Straight Outta Compton felt like a gift from F. Gary Gray given specifically to me. It’s an epic picture that covers the formation of N.W.A., a group consisting of MC Ren, DJ Yella, Easy E, and two entertainers that are still superstars today, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. From their humble beginnings coming from next to nothing in the ghetto of Compton, California, to their rise to the pinnacle of hip-hop while becoming public enemy #1, to the fragmentation of the group due to contract and payment disputes, to on record beefs with Ice Cube after he left the group, all the way up to Dre’s time with Death Row Records and Easy E’s tragic death due to HIV, Straight Outta Compton misses very little in the retelling of N.W.A.’s story.

Maybe it was because the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious left such a bland taste in my mouth, but for whatever reason, I had little expectations for Straight Outta Compton up until I saw its first trailer and saw how authentic everything looked. The casting seemed solid and the idea of using Ice Cube’s son O’shea Jackson, Jr. seemed like a stroke of brilliance to me. Let’s just hope he can act! And boy can he. At least as his dad, which might not be the biggest stretch of his now promising career. He channeled Ice Cube so well and looked so much like his father, that it really feels like you’re watching a young Cube play himself in the film. It’s a remarkable performance. Jason Mitchell was stellar as Easy E and the rest of the supporting cast was solid as well. Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre was the only actor in the main cast that I didn’t love. He wasn’t exactly a dead ringer for a young Dre and there were a couple moments in the film where I actually winced at some of his acting. All in all though, the cast really brought this story to life and I was impressed with how genuine it felt. There were plenty of intense scenes involving encounters with police, other rap figures, gangs, good ole Suge Knight, and, sometimes, each other. Perhaps the best sequence in the film is when Ice Cube embarks on his solo career and the group makes a subliminal remark about him, sparking him to respond with his classic “No Vaseline” – and then watching as the remaining N.W.A. members and their entourage react as they listen to it for the first time. It’s comedy gold.

Now, while I was super impressed with Straight Outta Compton it was hard not to notice some inconsistencies as someone that grew up during the late 80s and early 90s. First, in the great opening sequence of the film, Easy E is seen trying to evade police during a drug house raid in 1986 while wearing a Chicago White Sox hat with a logo the MLB team wouldn’t adopt until the early 90s. Also, there’s a scene at Death Row Records where Tupac is seen recording his record “Hail Mary” right before Dre plays him the beat to “California Love.” While this certainly could have happened, it seems unlikely considering that “Hail Mary” appeared on the Makaveli album after “California Love” was released on Tupac’s previous album All Eyes On Me. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Dre’s executive producing credit had a direct affect on his portrayal in the film. For one, there was no mention of his assault of female rapper/television personality Dee Barnes. For two, it’s pretty common knowledge in the hip-hop world that Dr. Dre is a studio gangster – I’ve heard rumblings about how “soft” he is for years. Straight Outta Compton paints a pretty picture: Dre is seen throwing blows and getting buck on multiple occasions, including getting right up in the face of notoriously scary Suge Knight and telling him he’s leaving Death Row Records. It’s a scene I just can’t imagine ever happened. Suge Knight was, and remains, a completely psychopath, with an affinity for violence and no moral compass. There is no way he let Dr. Dre talk to him like that and walk away unharmed. It just didn’t happen. Finally, the film completely skips past the on record beef between Easy E and Dr. Dre, which seems like a pretty substantial part of the N.W.A. story.

Still, those are small nitpicks and they don’t bring down the quality of the film at all. Straight Outta Compton was a total thrill ride. As a huge rap fan growing up, this movie was like eye and ear candy to me. There are tons of references to songwriting and performances of classic N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre songs. I enjoyed almost every minute of it’s absurdly long (yet seemingly too short) running time. It’s an absolute must see for hip-hop fans, but I also think it has a broader appeal since it’s such a great movie. In fact, I think I’ll be going out of my way to recommend it to my mom and dad, and you know what, they’re going to love it.

Replay Value: It’s a must own for me.
Sequel Potential: None. (Edit: Apparently I spoke to soon. While there probably won’t be a direct sequel, the success of this film already has the industry rumbling about a biopic detailing the rise of Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, and the Dogg Pound.)
Oscar Potential: This is where it gets interesting. My initial feeling after watching Straight Outta Compton was that it was my favorite movie of the year so far. Then I started wondering if other people, like potential voters, might feel the same way, and early reviews and buzz has this movie receiving some consideration. I think the actors playing Ice Cube and Easy E could be seen as long shots for acting noms, and the movie itself should have at least an outside chance at a Best Picture nomination… of course, with those kinds of possibilities, also comes possible nominations for directing, cinematography, writing, and various other technical aspects. It will be curious to see how things develop as, right now, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have a lot of stiff competition just yet.

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

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