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Eye on Film: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton starts out off like a shot of a cannon as Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) visits a dope house to pick up a package but quickly finds things arent as they seem when guns are drawn and threats are made. Then its out of the frying pan and into the fire as an armored police personnel carrier comes rumbling down the street with a battering ram attached to it. Then BLAM! It busts down the door just as Eazy finally finds a means of escape in a crack house where all the windows have bars on them.

Our diminutive protagonist can then be seen narrowly evading pit bulls that may, or may not, have been fed with gunpowder. It was this scene, as portrayed by actor Jason Mitchell, that generated the idea of becoming legit. This is an unusual occurrence in film as it is rare that a moviegoer gets to witness the primary catalyst for the entire movie in the very first sequence. 

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The NWA origin story is one most hip-hop fans who grew up in the era will never forget, but its big screen interpretation is entertaining and well-paced despite our familiarity with it. Eazy-E runs into Dre, realizes his incredible talent, and the rest is history. But in Straight Out of Compton, these initial scenes are not as much for the sake of continuity but to introduce the wonderful young actors who played Ice Cube (the star’s own son, OShea Jackson, Jr), Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and Eazy-E.

Club owner Lonzo Williams, as played by actor Corey Reynolds, was hysterically out of touch relative to the young characters of the film, adorned in water color suits with broad winged collars. He dismisses the young mens dreams of taking what they called Reality Rap to the next level. Preferring instead to have them concentrate on ballads and slow jams that were all the rage in the late 80’s. Those who remember Dre, DJ Yella, Michel’le and The World Class Wrecking Crew know what I’m talking about.

But one night Lonzo is busy handling a business matter when Dre and the gang decide to take a chance and give Ice Cube the microphone. The success of that endeavor would propel them onward with confidence in their abilities, ultimately approaching Eazy E to ask for financing. After perfecting their early sound, Eazy takes their new album to get pressed, where he runs into Jerry Heller, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti.  Heller is the first industry vet to have faith in the group and his passion immediately wins E over. However, as Momma used to say, the first choice isnt necessarily the best choice (Editor’s note- Momma used to say “Take your time young man” as well).

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But these young men from the city of Compton dont know any better at the time and Heller becomes the groups manager while he and Eazy-E co-found Ruthless Records.

Executive produced by Ice Cube, Dre and Eazy Es widow Tomica Woods-Wright, it seemed like there was a concerted effort to make sure each of the primary three members of the group were shown in a sympathetic light.

From the hard-core imagery of the group (lots of weapons, lots more partially clothed women) to the pitfalls that offset friendships when fame occurs, the personal agendas of former band members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eazy-E, all of whom are hands-on executive producers, were clear for all who were paying attention.

Dr. Dre is made out to be something of a heroic figure by the script. Great for those of us looking for commonly held cinematic troupes, but not in sync with the realities of the shark feeding frenzy that is the American music business.  But Hawkins did do an incredible job. Not saying Dre is a bad guy, but the nature of the record business breeds narcissism at the top.

There are no hero moguls. 

Director F. Gary Gray has a very long and storied history with members of NWA, having directed videos for both Cube and Dre, as well as the director on Cubes cult classic Friday. So, it was already something of a foregone conclusion that filmgoers would get something of washed-out version of the story. Nobody is going to pay a director to show them in an unfavorable light.

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Yes, the nefarious Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) was portrayed with all the viciousness and idiotic pseudo gangster tendencies that one would expect, but other elements in the periphery of the N.W.A. experience were either glossed over or completely left out.

Things like Dres alleged history of domestic abuse, the East Coast-West Coast beef, Tupacs diss against Dre and the C. Deloris Tucker situation, were all completely left out. Also, I felt like MC Ren didn’t get his fair shine in the film either. 

However, part of what makes Straight Outta Compton such a visceral entertainment experience is the relevance of their rebelliousness against overzealous policing as immortalized in the classic F*ck The Police.  The film spends a great deal of time establishing the why and what of the groups disdain for law enforcement and gives you all the information you need to know about why anyone would create such a track.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique captured all of the gritty, dangerous and excessive lifestyles of the protagonists and romanticized the environment just enough to draw viewers in. However, there is a cautionary spice hiding just beneath the surface of every riveting scene.

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OShea Jackson, Jr. is clearly a chip off the old block as far as his looks, his smile, his diction and eyebrows are concerned. Yeah, hes a little bit taller than his Dad and doesnt REALLY have a shoulder length jheri curl, but theres no other actor in the world who could have possibly played Cube better. Great job.

Though the NWA story starts off explosively, full of guns, groupies in thongs and snarling police officers, it ends with a very poignant message about excessive sexual appetites and AIDS.  Very, very well-acted, heart-wrenching scene, yall. Though Jackson’s performance was my favorite, Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy-E was the most important performance in the film for me.

Straight Outta Compton is one-part superhero origin story, one-part portrait of being young, gifted and Black in America, and one-part hip-hop mythology tale. As a standalone piece of work meant solely for entertainment, Straight Outta Compton is an American classic. As a documentary? Not so much.

The Shadow League gives Straight Outta Compton an A plus. Great acting, great direction and cinematography.

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