Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Fiction.
There are a few complaints I have with this movie, but I’ll get to those later in the review.
I remember the first time I heard N.W.A. As a longtime basketball player, I was always exposed to rap music on the courts. And truth be told, I liked it. Scratch that. I didn’t like it, per se. I liked the vibe it created on the courts. I was in 8th grade when I heard Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Their songs had great grooves and interesting lyrics. I heard Kurtis Blow and a few years later, my entire basketball team at Mira Mesa High would be blasting Run DMC from boom boxes.
When N.W.A. was first played on the courts, I was hearing Boyz-n-the Hood. Loved the music, and it was interesting to see the gangbangers sitting under the shady trees at the rec center blasting it out as the smell of pot wafted into the air. Eazy-E was singing about his ’64 Impala and I’d look over and think…well, they have a lowered ’84 Buick Cutlass. Close enough.
My friend Kevin Baynard taught me to break dance, and we’d often recite our favorite rap lyrics after basketball games. He played the N.W.A. song “Dope Man.” I couldn’t believe lyrics could be this raunchy.
It wasn’t until their controversial song “F*** the Police” that they started making the news. I was hoping the censorship machine wouldn’t stop this band, just as I felt it was unfair that Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest had to answer for fans that killed themselves after listen to certain songs they wrote. I seriously doubted people would hear this song and go after the cops (although who would’ve guessed that a thug could rob a liquor store, beat up a cop and be shot dead…and that would be what rallies crowds in Ferguson against the cops).
That being said, I was looking forward to this movie, but quickly found it was going to be a conventional biopic. That might’ve been fine if this were about Run D.M.C or Fresh Prince, but this was the birth of gangsta rap!
The problems start with two of the main members – Ice Cube and Dr. Dre – who are producers. That means that the only bad guys are the cops, the Jewish manager, and Suge Knight. Even Eazy-E comes off easy in this telling of their story.
The performances from this largely unknown cast are stellar. Ice Cube’s real life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays him wonderfully. Dr. Dre is played by Corey Hawkins, who has his eyes. Jason Mitchell and his Jheri curls, play E.
The next problem arises when we look at the other members of N.W.A. This movie ends up telling nothing about their story. Now, in the later part of the movie, that’s fine. Dr. Dre ends up becoming a billionaire, Ice Cube embarks on a successful solo career, and Eazy-E…I won’t say, in case you aren’t familiar with his story; but if you’re going to show us how they all got to this place, show us how the other bandmates got here.
Now, let’s discuss the manager. He’s played by Paul Giamatti, who just came off a role as Brian Wilson’s manager and doctor. It was the exact same character, with a different (and more distracting) hairpiece. His lines were cliché, Behind-the-Music material.
The movie started with us getting to learn about the three core members and how they started. Eazy-E was selling drugs and made enough money (some reports have it as a quarter of a million dollars), that he could fund the band. Dr. Dre is dealing with his mom nagging him to get a job. His girlfriend is nagging him to help take care of their baby. He’s more interested in listening to Marvin Gaye records and becoming a club DJ.
Ice Cube is the sensitive poet. He has to witness a gangbanger get on his school bus and threaten kids with a gun. He’s always writing poetry, as he longing looks out at kids at a nicer school, with their BMWs, and listening to Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (which was a cleverly chosen tune for that scene).
Director F. Gary Gray has worked with a lot of the older rappers, including Ice Cube. It makes sense that he’d get the job, but it also makes him rather biased. He tells the story so that this band seems so sanctimonious.
Watching N.W.A. get together and work in the studio for the first time was fun. Witnessing them deal with a club owner that just wants a DJ spinning dance tunes, instead of letting his friend Ice Cube come out and spit some rhymes, was interesting.
Realizing Eazy-E had the money, and could learn to rap, made us chuckle. Of course, they have him repeat lines in the studio about “Cruisin’ down the street in my ’64.” We don’t hear the other lyrics in that song, which are rather misogynistic. Now, I’m not saying those lyrics bother me, it’s just odd that they were such a big part of the bands writing and they weren’t shown.
Once they get famous, the concert scenes are forgettable. They’re playing big venues, and the only thing that changes are the names of the cities and arenas that appear on the bottom of the screen. It’s not until they get to Detroit and are told by the cops not to perform “F**k the Police” that things get a little interesting.
Now on that subject, let’s talk about one of the many flaws with this bio-pic. All the cops are shown as violent and racist jerks. Really? So, let’s talk about those specific scenes. In one of them, two of the guys are fighting in a parking lot. They stop as soon as a cop rolls up. The cop asks what’s going on. They say “Nothing.”
When asked why they are all bloodied, the response? A sarcastic, “I fell.”
The cop knows they’re lying and says, “Get out of here! Go home.”
Instead of just walking away, realizing they are free, one of them snaps, “I am home!”
To which the cop then arrests him (or at least cuffs him). And, what? We’re supposed to hate the cops for this? Since when is it okay to fight in a parking lot? And that’s even assuming this is exactly how it happened (since we’re hearing/seeing THEIR side of the story, not the officers).
The next incident with the cops…Dr. Dre is in the studio for the first time with N.W.A. He goes outside because his girlfriend is there with their child, and they’re leaving him. He’s yelling at her, as a cop drives by. Now, I’m not sure about police protocol, but I’m guessing that’s a situation they should check out. Well, the band comes outside to see where he is, just as a few other cops show up. The cops ask them what’s going on, they mouth off, and the cops throw them to the ground. The one cop that uses the n-word, is actually black (that doesn’t make it right, but still). And if we’re supposed to hate a black cop that uses the n-word, I’d like to know why the two that produced this movie and were in N.W.A., don’t think it was wrong to refer to homosexuals as “fa****s.”
As the band members are cuffed for “no reason,” manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti) comes out and yells. They’re eventually let off. Again, think about how this started. A guy is yelling at a woman in the car. Well, scratch that (no pun intended). The film doesn’t show him yelling, just getting angry. You see, the band doesn’t want to appear as anything but saints. So, it’s always everyone else that is wrong and trying to keep them down. They never do anything wrong, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for every scene that shows the cops driving by and eyeballing them…we’re supposed to be indignant. Yet when one of the band members doesn’t trust their manager, what does he do? He sends a thug over in a wife-beater, to stand in front of his house smoking a cigarette. When Heller shows up he says, “You live here? Your wife lives here?” Yeah, so…the band can send thugs to watch after you and make veiled threats, but the cops aren’t supposed to drive by high crime areas checking situations out.
Yet here’s the biggest problem with the narrative they’re giving us. They want us to believe the cops just harass them for no reason. Guess what? Every time one of these band members has a problem with somebody, guess what they do? They show up at a studio with a bunch of guys with baseball bats, smashing the place up (of course, we’re suppose to think the band was right in that situation, because the record label was screwing them out of money). Problem is this. Ice Cube does this after he goes solo. He left N.W.A. because he felt Eazy-E and Heller cheated him out of money. If that’s the case, why didn’t he get contracts signed with his new record label? Fool me once….is the expression that comes to mind. Instead, he feels you can bash up a guys office and threaten his life, when you are being cheated. Had he signed a contract and had a lawyer look at it (we know he knows about lawyers, since he mentioned having a lawyer look at the contract with Heller)…he could instead sue and get the money that he’s due.
Dr. Dre at one point, gets in a fight with Suge Knight, and takes off in his white Ferrari in a high speed chase with the cops. As they arrest him, he pouts, “Why are you guys always messin’ with me?”
Really? Since when are cops “messing” with somebody that’s driving 90 mph? (side note: the real story is he was driving drunk, yet the movie didn’t show that. In fact, he didn’t have a drink, just a fight with Knight. They can pass the blame on to him and Dre can just appear as the tortured artist. Perhaps audiences wouldn’t have been as sympathetic to a person that was drunk driving).
There was only one time the band was shown in a negative light. That’s when they’re having a party at a hotel room having their way with various women. Perhaps they felt that everyone knows famous musicians do that, and nobody would fault them for it. Yet when an angry boyfriend shows up looking for his girlfriend, the guys in the group pull out their guns, stick it in his face, and chase him out of the place. The audience I was with laughed, as did the members of N.W.A. on screen.
So, let me get this straight. The members of N.W.A. can pull guns on people. They can beat people up (if they feel those people wronged them and sometimes that can be just over a parking space). Oh, and one of them says a lot of anti-Semitic things. Yet if the police do these same things to them, it’s horribly out of line (again, if we even believe the cops ALL did this to them).
As I’m writing this, I just heard that Oprah Winfrey is telling everyone how much she loved the movie and how powerful it is. That’s strange, because Oprah has had a long standing rule of not allowing rappers on her show because of their misogynistic lyrics. Once the entire cast of a movie, aside from rapper Ludicris, was invited on her show. I’m guessing Oprah doesn’t realize the movie left out all the songs that had those lyrics (and with N.W.A., there were a lot).
Those lyrics don’t offend me. Hell, I was singing them in my car when the record came out. It’s just the fact that this all makes the bio-pic feel false.
Another problem with this movie is that, at two and a half hours long, and all these fights over contracts…why did we never learn what it was in the contracts that got everyone so riled up? What was it Ice Cube was complaining about?
Dr. Dre became a billionaire. He obviously had talent and good business sense. Yet when he gets mad at a party going on in the studio (when he’s trying to work with future legend Tupac Shakur), he punches somebody and smashes things. That’s the only bit of temper we get from him and again, it makes him look like the good guy. He’s trying to work, and he’s being disrupted. We don’t hear anything about a female TV reporter he once beat up (that resulted in a $22 million lawsuit). We don’t hear about him doing jail time in 1995 (wouldn’t that give him the “street cred” these rappers seem to crave?)
Eazy-E had seven children from six different women. That’s never mentioned, other than the few times the manager warns him against sleeping with every woman in every city they go to.
There are other topics that you wish were covered a bit more. Ice Cube is hanging around with the Nation of Islam, and the Jewish Defense League is helping Eazy-E.
There are a few interesting scenes that show records actually being made, as well as an early meeting with Heller. Eazy-E doesn’t seem impressed with his REO Speedwagon poster, and handbill for a Grand Funk Railroad concert. We hear Grand Funk’s “Closer to Home” in the background, which probably worked better because it’s a ballad, but I think “We’re an American Band” would’ve been cool, since N.W.A. is, well…straight out of Compton.
In a recent interview, Ice Cube said about this movie, “It’s all about being real.”
Really? It’s a rags-to-riches story that is hardly telling us the real story. It’s a manipulative picture. This would’ve been the equivalent of The Doors movie coming out, and Oliver Stone not showing Jim Morrison ever drinking.
Eazy-E tells Ice Cube he thought the movie Boyz n the Hood was like an after school special. Well, so is this movie.
All those complaints aside, the movie is entertaining and most audiences will enjoy it. I’m guessing they’ll like it more if they’re fans of rap.
I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5, but I’m guessing other critics will be a lot kinder. That’s because they don’t know the real story, and don’t mind it being sugar-coated. Heck, it’s one more reason we can all just bash the police, right?