Straight Outta Compton ***
At the risk of sounding like a prudish, old, white, conservative curmudgeon, which I am not, (well, I’m not most of those things), I left “Straight Outta Compton” with conflicted emotions.
On one hand the movie was well directed, entertaining, brilliantly cast and educational; I learned more about 1980s gangsta rap and the careers of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy-E, Suge Knight and others than I ever thought I’d want to know.
On the other hand I left without feeling much sympathy for any of the main characters. This biopic about hip-hop pioneers N.W.A. (Nigaaz Wit Attitudes), hailed by critics and even having received a blessing from Oprah, was timely this year in its stark reminders of police brutality where young black men were (and often still are) routinely harrassed (or worse) simply for being black.
This is still true today, and was particularly true in the early 1980s in Los Angeles where the mayor created an all-out war against gang bangers and anyone who looked like a gang banger.
This atmosphere lead to the Rodney King beating and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved, followed by days of rioting that shook the nation. N.W.A. was there through the thick and thin of it, creating, releasing and performing in the genre they created, “gangsta rap,” including the anti-law enforcement anthem “F*ck tha Police.”
I get that growing up in Compton (an impoverished community south of L.A.) must have been brutal, but how that excuses the behavior of almost everyone in the group is a mystery.
Paul Giamatti’s character, real life N.W.A. co-founder and manager Jerry Heller, is presented as influential and essential, but ultimately crooked. The director F. Gary Gray and co-producer Ice Cube attempt to glorify the group, while presenting what we must believe is an accurate portrayal of historical events, with a seemingly blind eye turned toward the horrific behavior of its participants.
Almost without exception, each of the characters is fully narcissistic; selfish beyond understanding; violent (including the participation and sanction of human torture, dog fighting and random shootings); disloyal; thieving; involved in drug abuse and trafficking, extortion, misogyny, the brutalization of women and gratuitous sex (leading to the contraction of aids and the death of N.W.A. co-founder Easy E); and other behaviors that represent the worst of humanity.
That almost every kind of criminal behavior is seemingly excused because they’re from Compton and they’re skilled artists is hard to polish to a gloss. This mixture of hero worship, nostalgia and documentary makes for an odd, unsettling movie.
If O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson was hoping to refine his legacy of those early days before he started embracing the Hollywood machine he spoke out against, he’s failed miserably.
What do those stars mean?
* Really, really, really bad. Don’t bother.
** Pretty bad, with one or more redeeming scenes.
*** Pretty good, but maybe not great, worth seeing for most
**** Really great, a winning combination of story, casting, and directing
***** The rarest gem, an all-around perfect motion picture