Even among us independent, avant-garde, Europe-fried B-movie enthusiasts, there’s still a little mystique left in the idea of a runaround popular hit and an “event motion picture”, especially when that event doesn’t generally involve CG overload or a franchise player. Witnessing the robust box office success of Straight Outta Compton, and in particular witnessing Hollywood accept movies with black protagonists that explicitly address police brutality as valid events, is a refresher. Whether the film surrounding that event is good is not necessarily a given, for it is, after all, Hollywood making that motion picture, and likely subsuming the black audience and black characters into the generally white Hollywood machine. It is thus, perhaps, not a surprise that Straight Outta Compton, the film, never acquires the downright frightening, lightning-in-a-bottle social disarray of its subjects or the album that bears the film’s name. The film has some of that album’s braggadocio and bluster, and a little of its stylistic bravado, but precious little of the rip-roaring broadsides to conventional society and conventional artistic practices.
Still, Straight Outta Compton is not a bad film, nor is it not a good film. It is merely an overworked, desperate one with too many guiding voices and too many restrictions placed on it by the corporate machine of Hollywood and mainstream society, not to mention the film’s mega-star producers, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the two most successful members of NWA, the film’s subject, back in the day. The film is, for starters, either half an hour too long or an hour too short. The wonderful opening moments, impressionistically delaying narrative for the moment-to-moment lived-in energy and camaraderie of life on the streets, eventually curdle into an uncomfortable battle of themes and characters and sub-plots attempting to climb to the top of the hill and usurp the others.
Like its protagonists, Straight Outta Compton trades on an old-school genre shocked with new school energy, stripping Hollywood and music history for parts and rejiggering them into its own rough-and-tumble whole. Yet, also like its protagonists, it loses its head around the half-way point when the in-fighting begins. Scenes no longer harmoniously buttress each other to form a whole better than the sum of its parts. The scenes simply bicker and fight for screen-time. A sugar rush gives way to sleep, after-all, and Compton doesn’t make it all the way.
The bedlam espoused in the group’s lyrics and unleashed in their counter-intuitive assemblage of clashing samples soon seeps into their hearts and the inner friction of the group in Straight Outta Compton, and it too cracks the core of the film. What begins as a rather lovely in-the-moment study of five young Compton dwellers, Ice Cube (played by his son O’ Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), soon stumbles into dark waters as passions flair and characters are introduced in a rabid slurry of sub-plots and questionable shifts in focus. By the end of the film, it is difficult to tell whether we are watching a come-back story, a social critique, a medical drama, a concert film, a rags-to-riches story of fame and fortune, an “in the hood” comedy circa 1995 the likes of director F. Gary Gray’s own Friday, or an oblong action-thriller.
So the film is a mess, but then, so was NWA, and like that influential band of cracker-jack rabble-rousers, the film often shocks itself into something vigorously exciting even against its better nature. I don’t need to be the 100th person to write about how natural and unforced the band of actors playing the five leads are, but they are without fault or weak link; especially during the film’s first half, they sell both the acidic confrontational masculinity and the tender, live-for-the-moment-because-we-don’t-have-a-future camaraderie with scrap and scruff. Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the initial star of the crew until he is overshadowed by the workaholics Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, imbues his lost soul with a wayward, tragic weariness the older he gets.
Gray meanwhile clearly exhibits a natural respect for the crew (his first directorial effort, Friday, was a key work in Ice Cube’s early career in front of the screen). All the belabored confusion in the second half of Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay can’t alter his dogged commitment to the everyday poetry of street life, the galvanic high of a blazing hip hop concert filmed like a war zone, or the weary eye of his young actors reacting to police brutality not with a fight but with a “just another day” shrug. Nothing Gray is doing here is truly challenging, but it is undeniably the work of a director who feels for his material; this is no mere paycheck for him.
Besides Gray, Matthew Bigatique, the inconstantly great cinematographer for Darren Aronofsky, is on hand with a style that crosses the threshold between gritty realism and almost pop-art street etchings, with evocative and occasionally beautiful lighting that exposes both the driest, most blinding Summer days and the deepest almost horror-movie chills wandering the nightly streets of Compton. The film’s production detail is impeccable, but special mention should go to Kelli Jones for selling the internal strife and connections of the five-man group almost entirely with the fluctuations in their hats (which, at the beginning, all share a love for LA sports teams but reveal disarray in the differences of team choice, and as the film moves on, they all slowly unify toward Raiders support, only to break apart idiosyncratically again around fall-out time).
All craft aside, Straight Outta Compton struggles to lift the weight of the Hollywood biopic sub-genre, most likely the sleepiest, most anti-craft genre in the entirety of cinema. It is certainly less cloyingly respectable than many similar biopics (especially white male biopics such as The Imitation Game) which is a categorical good, and it has a certain gusto and spark of outsider energy that befits its outsider artist subject matter. Yet, the structure of the film never truly escapes from the perils and pitfalls of the genre, ending with a death that is, if piercing and delivered with conviction, nonetheless programmatic and purely functional.
Compton’s failings are not merely a question of the film’s unwillingness to address NWA’s misogyny (although this is a failure, many films about white protagonists are never such questioned for their rampant misogyny, a point white critics of the film seem to forget). Straight Outta Compton doesn’t address misogyny because the structure of the film is borrowed wholesale from dozens of other films (with white protagonists) that don’t address misogyny. Copying what works is not inherently a crime, but that requires that the original be a worthwhile piece of social critique or artistic cinema to begin with. And if any genre tends to fail on both of those counts with an almost 100% success rate, it is probably the biopic. Straight Outta Compton is a well made “one of those films”, yet it is still “one of those films”.
Put another way, it feels like a work made by present-day Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, respectable elder statesmen who have largely settled into wealth and general social “respect”. It feels this way because it was made by them. The ribald, hard core, bone-grazing outsiders of the past with not only something to say but a radical way to say it seem long gone. It is respectable craft, and that is the least we can expect of such finely tuned workaholics, but it is, in the end, just a little too respectable for its own good. The hunger that fueled a group of youths with something to prove is absent; Straight Outta Compton is but a decent consolation prize.