REVIEW: Straight Outta Compton

13 08 2015

Straight Outta Compton” arrives a year (almost to the day) after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and protesters screaming “black lives matter” are disrupting both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on the stump.  In terms of timing, the movie got lucky as America fortunately received repeated exposure to just what kind of unfortunate force the boys and blue could mete out with relative impunity.  Yes, people clapped at the first beat of their controversial anthem “F-ck The Police.”

The film charts the rise of rap group N.W.A. (that’s N-s With Attitude, for those unaware of the acronym) from the streets of Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood to music superstardom.  The main distinction of their origin story from the run-of-the-mill music biopic is their repeated clashes with the neighborhood police force, which refuses to acknowledge any difference between them and deadbeat dads or drug dealers.  The mere sight of black skin seems to trigger fear and a sense of entitlement to exert oppressive control.

The first half of “Straight Outta Compton” features as many brutal run-ins with the police as it does rousing rap numbers.  Perhaps most strikingly, the groups’ worst harasser is black himself.  Writers Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman recognize that the problem breaks down beyond mere racial fault lines; there are discriminatory attitudes and unchecked powers among the police that need to be reigned in to a sensible level.

Towards the end of where the narrative stops, the ’90s most notorious flare-up with police, the Rodney King beating, comes into frame.  But the savage attack, unexplainable acquittal, and subsequent riots never quite tie in with the same zeitgeist expressed by N.W.A. in their truth-telling rhymes.  The event plays out like little more than a marker in time, something in the background to ensure the audience remains aware that the years are 1991 and 1992.  Rather than building to a glorious conclusion about the need for change then and now, “Straight Outta Compton” just cruises by and observes the rubble after the rumble.

Straight Outta Compton

These conversations and confrontations with cops practically constitute a separate, more provocative film trapped within a rather conventional musician drama.  “Straight Outta Compton” hits such similar beats to “Jersey Boys” and “Love & Mercy,” just to name two released in the past year, that a change in setting can only marginally improve entertainment value.  That director F. Gary Gray stretches out the proceedings to a colossal two and a half hour runtime only allows the realization of its hackneyed elements to set in sooner.

Much like how the policing portions unfolded, the first half of “Straight Outta Compton” is the far more narratively compelling section.  By the time the group starts to unravel as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre begin to explore solo careers, “Straight Outta Compton” lacks a clear focus and a clear protagonist.  It even starts to recall “Entourage” at select moments with its vacuous partying, celebrity cameos, and casual misogyny.  The two films also curiously feature business squad ringleaders named “Eric” and go by “E” (here, that’s Eazy-E).

Even in spite of its shortcomings (as well as its long-comings – which isn’t a word), “Straight Outta Compton” still merits debate and discussion.  “Our art reflects our reality,” says O’Shea Jackson Jr’s Ice Cube at a press conference.  That gritty truth can definitely be seen, though so can some storytelling clichés.  B2halfstars

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