It’s the opening weekend for F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, and I have a lot of mixed feelings swirling around in my head after watching it. I’m reading all these in-depth reviews written by critics with little-to-no basic knowledge of hip-hop culture and that bothers me. Don’t get me wrong – anyone should be able to write about and have an opinion on any movie. But to a guy like me (a film critic with an extensive knowledge of hip-hop history) it’s a little strange reading a review written by a guy who probably never owned an actual NWA album or truly knows the impact that hip-hop’s first true “super group” had on not only west coast rap music, but hip-hop culture as a whole (whether you’re a fan or not this fact is undeniable). I also envision quite a few critics watching this with ironic smirks on their faces, as the subject matter in Straight Outta Compton is so far removed from anything they know that it comes off more like a really long SNL sketch instead of an actual movie. So how can these critics truly understand and appreciate a movie like this? I know there’s more that goes into critiquing a musical than just knowledge of the particular music scene at hand, but it still counts for something and makes for a better understanding. I also need to accept the fact that not all hip-hop films are made for people like me but rather casual viewers who don’t have all the nerdy inside knowledge that I do.
But at the same time, Straight Outta Compton isn’t a movie I really want to defend that much or go to bat for too hard, plus it’s doing just fine at the box office so it doesn’t need my defense. I’m a hip-hop nerd but I’ve never been a die-hard NWA fan. I certainly recognize and respect their iconic status and the artistry that went into their overall sound, but I also believe they’re heavily responsible for certain negative stereotypes that still plague some rappers today.
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the history of legendary rap group NWA along with the solo careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E (NWA members MC Ren and DJ Yella kind of play the background for the most part). Straight Outta Compton is energetic, Oshea Jackson Jr. does a fine job portraying his father Ice Cube (not since Geraldine Chaplin played her grandmother in Chaplin have I seen an actor portray a direct family member so well in a movie), Jason Mitchell shines as Eazy-E, Paul Giamatti does his best Paul Giamatti impression, and F. Gary Gray tips his hat to the next generation of rap music that came after NWA (Straight Outta Compton makes it a point to show a young Warren G and Snoop Doggy Dog as key background players).
The representation of west coast hip-hop in Straight Outta Compton is very important, as most prominent hip-hop films focus on legendary east coast/NYC figures like Nas (Time Is Illmatic), Grandmaster Flash (Wild Style), Rock Steady Crew (Style Wars), A Tribe Called Quest (Beats, Rhymes and Life) and The Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious). It’s cool that audiences are getting a light history lesson on the west coast hip-hop scene whether they realize it or not. I only hope people go home and google other west coast legends like Arabian Prince, Egyptian Lover, Joe Cooley, DJ Quik and Aladdin after watching this.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I’m glad hip-hop on the big screen has finally started to push forward and move beyond subjects like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (although the history of NWA does tie in to Tupac as Death Row records, Tupac’s former record label, kind of came about from NWA’s demise). Straight Outta Compton whets the appetite of a guy like me. Having watched it I now want films about Public Enemy, Wu-Tang, De La Soul and more. These things all seem a little more attainable now thanks to Straight Outta Compton, Time Is Illmatic, Beats Rhymes and Life and even Top Five (say what you want but Chris Rock really went out of his way to incorporate classic hip-hop into the fabric of that movie). And I’d be remiss not to mention my friend Mtume Gant’s short film S.P.I.T. as an even more ambitious example of good hip-hop on the big screen due to the fact that it takes a more abstract stance on the subject.
It’s also nice to see F. Gary Gray in the spotlight again, this being his first film in six years. His presence in the movie industry has always been hard to pin down. Although his work chronicles Los Angeles, he’s never mentioned alongside other LA-based filmmakers like Tarantino, PT Anderson and Robert Altman. He’s a prominent black filmmaker yet he’s never been grouped in with the likes of Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson, Robert Townsend, Bill Duke or The Hudlin Brothers. He’s always had to make his own path. Given Gray’s filmography and preexisting relationships with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Paul Giamatti, I honestly can’t think of anyone else that could’ve pull off something like Straight Outta Compton.
It takes a lot for me to give Straight Outta Compton any credit as I wasn’t expecting much. I had no immediate plans to see this until I was tapped to write an editorial for CutPrintFilm. I just didn’t think the story of NWA could fit the mold of a studio film. I still don’t think this was a completely successful movie but I was pleasantly surprised at how entertained I was. I’m also glad Straight Outta Compton clocked in at almost 2-1/2 hours. NWA’s story is too layered for a 105 minute movie (although I will say a lot of the content in this movie can be attained by a quick Wikipedia search and watching the Dr. Dre episode of VH1’s behind the music).
I absolutely prejudged this movie before seeing it and quite honestly a few of my prejudgments were on point. With Ice Cube and Dr. Dre acting as producers, I knew Straight Outta Compton would make them out to be way more awesome than they really are. Again – Dre and Cube are legends but at no point in the 147 minutes of the movie did F. Gary Gray address Ice Cube’s anti-Korean and Black separatist lyrics (he touches on Ice Cube’s anti-Semitic lyrics in one quick scene but that’s about it). And of course we don’t see Dr. Dre’s assault on Dee Barnes. But for some reason the movie had no problem showing Eazy-E as the shady guy he sometimes was.
I’m a little surprised at some of the historical inaccuracies and omissions in this movie given how close Ice Cube and Dr. Dre worked with F. Gary Gray. For example – there’s a scene in the first act where NWA is harassed outside of their studio for no reason. This encounter inspires them to write the famous song “Fuck The Police”. In reality, NWA wrote that song after they were stopped by the police for shooting off paintball guns at innocent bystanders on the street. And I know MC Ren isn’t as popular as some of the other members in NWA but you’d think someone might want to address the fact that he was one of the music artists to go platinum of an EP!
My insecurity does kick in and I get a little weary of large audiences watching a movie like this and getting the wrong idea about rap music and young black men as a whole. Rap music always gets a negative wrap so the last thing we need is to rehash the violent, misogynistic and negative content associated with NWA (I don’t care if I lose cool points for saying that). However, their legacy is based around a lot of positive aspects too (from the song “Express Yourself” to the influence they had on Kendrick Lamar).
At the end of the day Straight Outta Compton was entertaining. There’s no disputing that. But know that this is a movie about NWA, one of the most controversial rap groups of all time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that there are some scenes that objectify women — in fact, there isn’t much of a female presence at all besides tour groupies, Eazy-E’s wife and Dr. Dre’s mother. But that was part of their image. I don’t condone any of the negativity associated with NWA but if their legacy bothers you in any way – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that – stay home.