Sonic Reality: “Straight Outta Compton” Review

The images in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton play a secondary role to the sound of the film, helping to accentuate the sonically driven narrative rather than completely dominate it; this is mostly in part due to Straight Outta Compton’s story being one about music and how one hip-hop group from Los Angeles shook the country through their music and so an emphasis is placed on how music helped shaped and define the time period. Reconstructing history is never objective, however, and in the presentation of Straight Outta Compton’s narrative, certain elements of history are lost or rather omitted.

Straight Outta Compton is a biopic which tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A. With a focus on its three most popular members—Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Straight Outta Compton begins with a weaving of the separate narrative lives of each member. The three mentioned above all know each other and with dreams of making it big, it doesn’t take long until Dre propositions Eazy to use his drug money to produce a song. The hit single, “Boyz in the Hood,” gets the group noticed and with backing from their new music manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the group soars
into popularity, stardom, and power.

Straight Outta Compton’s story is one that can be said to have existed before the film was released. That is to say, the narrative is one that has existed in N.W.A.’s music discography. N.W.A.’s breakout album, “Straight Outta Compton,” features the track “F*** Tha’ Police,” the very song which made the group a political hotbed. The individual subsequent musical releases by its members, such as Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” help to tell the story of the group’s fallout with its inclusion of diss tracks. F. Gary Gray as the director then, uses the visual aspects of the film in order to accentuate the music and to this extent creates an atmosphere of hyper-energy, due in part to the cut-throat aura of N.W.A.’s music and the actor’s prowess to carry out the “gangsta-rap” attitude. The rags to riches story not only sweeps N.W.A. off their feet but the audience as well; there exists, due to the visuals of the film, a sense of self-identification with the characters. The audience shares in part both with N.W.A.’s success and failures and it this momentum that carries the film up until its last quarter, where the narrative slows down to showcases the dissolution and individual actions of the group.

It’s in the final quarter of the film that Straight Outta Compton reveals that it’s a story about N.W.A., as much as it also a story of race relations in America and the police brutality which governs said relations. Growing up in Compton, Ice Cube is personally attacked by the police for the color of his skin and the inspiration for “F*** the Police” is revealed to come from another attack the police suffered from the police, outside of their music studio. A line by one of the policemen, who is black (the abuse of power is one that stems from outside the realms of color, although there is without a doubt an influence on how that power is used by different racial groups), bring into question the nature of rap music as an art form, when the policeman responds to Heller’s defense that “these boys are artists,” that rap isn’t an art. The visual aesthetic of gangster-rap at the time—black men from a lower economic class, loaded with weaponry and tales of drugs and death—appeared as more of an omen than an art form to the cultural powers that be. Heller has a difficult time in procuring distributors, as they—white men—leave NWA concerts prematurely. The fear of gangsta rap’s visual aesthetic, however, is neither a valid nor just criticism for why the music is not an art-form. As the members of the group put it, they’re telling the “truth,” and the truth is, the police are indiscriminately attacking minorities. The height of Straight Outta Compton’s revelry in history comes with the showcasing of Rodney King’s death at the hand of the police—an event which was captured on camera. Rodney King’s death as the film’s most truthful image, due in part to Straight Outta Compton being a re-enactment of events and with re-enactment comes control and so in watching the film, there’s need to be a sense of wary.

Straight Outta Compton does more than just tell the story of NWA but works as an artistic piece of the group’s legacy as it shapes how the artists are ideologically viewed. In doing so, a need for the more positive and bigger aspects of the group arise and so members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) are placed in the foreground. Furthermore, the women of the film are placed farther such, both ideologically and physically. Eazy E’s promiscuity is never show in the film and neither are the tumultuous and public relationships of Dre. While Ice Cube’s wife, Kimberly Woodruff (Alexandra Shipp), plays a role in helping Cube develop his solo career, women in Straight Outta Compton are relegated to the backgrounds of clubs and studio sessions, adorning the frame as visual jewelry. The result is a film that at times seems to be more interested in creating music gods, than telling the stories of humble men who worked their way out of the ghetto.

Straight Outta Compton is a film which sweeps with an energetic pulse, powerfully telling an important chapter in American cultural history. In recreating history, however, Straight Outta Compton purposely skips a beat, leaving a film that while indeed tells the truth, leaves something to be desired.

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