Good readers of MediaBrewPub, it’s time for another e-mail exchange! You’ve read what ensued when we paired Andrew and Jason (5 times, to be exact), and also when we paired Andrew and Jun for the last e-mail exchange. Andrew and Jun are back again, and they’re here to tackle Straight Outta Compton, currently the #1 movie in America. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Andrew’s thoughts are in red, Jun’s in blue.
Admittedly, I didn’t listen to hip-hop until quite recently, and even then, I’m not exactly avid about the genre, though I do like listening to it here and there. Of course, I say this as a sheltered, suburban Asian who only listened to classical music, ’60s tunes, and movie soundtracks for most of his life and started branching out in college. That said, you would probably expect me to be the last person to watch Straight Outta Compton. But hey, Universal has marketed the movie pretty damn well, and I happen to like 8 Mile, so I was looking forward to this. And you know what? This is a pretty good film.
Everything good comes from four people: the three lead actors and the director. Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – who play Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube respectively – knock it out of the park. My goodness. This is a trio of charismatic and empathetic performances, and the chemistry they share is natural and chock-full of energy. You can tell they really believe in what this film sets out to do, and everything they sell is genuine and soulful. Their careers can only take off from here. Ditto for F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job), who clearly communicates the perspective and voice of what it was like to a black youth in a very prejudiced time. The frustration and the sense of a community, a culture, a people, against a backdrop of a gritty and kinetic world come through – this is what it means to transport an audience to an era that most of us probably don’t know. Bravo, bravo.
Granted, I do think that Straight Outta Compton, despite its runtime of nearly two and a half hours, isn’t quite the film it envisioned itself being. MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) are relegated to secondary characters, which is a shame because the film’s strongest moments come when all five members of N.W.A. are onscreen. They also nearly drop off completely in the second half, which definitely pales in comparison to the first. By the way, did we even see those two in the archival footage shown during the end credits that was basically a tribute to Dre and Cube? The 1992 L.A. riots feel tacked on since we see the characters react to it angrily but don’t do anything else about it, which contrasts with how the group come up with the infamous song “Fuck the Police” after facing police brutality and racial profiling in the first half of the film. There’s definitely a voice in there somewhere, but it doesn’t quite speak up when it should. I’m glad it ended on a pretty high note, though.
Let’s hear your take, lowbrow.
I’m looking forward to this. While I won’t say that I’m the exact opposite of you when it comes to my experience with N.W.A., I certainly had a lot more exposure to them growing up. My first album purchase with my own money was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and I was hooked on gangsta rap from the moment I heard Snoop’s laid-back flow on “Nuthin’ but a G Thang.” I immediately went to find as much Dre-related material as I could and was led to N.W.A., which led me to Ice Cube and so on and so forth. The long and the short of it is I was raised on this stuff. So when I saw this movie coming out, I was hyped.
Upon viewing, I loved the film, but because I have background knowledge of these artists (particularly Cube and Dre, who were not always as ubiquitous in pop culture the way they are today), there were areas of the story that I thought were overlooked. In the end, I thought it was the right movie for the consumption of the general public but left me wanting a little bit more. However, it should be acknowledged that this is the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time. A black director, a black lead, and a controversial black group – that is a bold statement and it needs to be recognized. If you would have told me that a film about west coast gangsta rap would be number one in the theaters for three straight weeks, I would have assumed you had been smoking some good, good ganja.
So what did I love about this movie? I’m going to both agree and disagree with you and say that it was the performances. But while you seem to unilaterally give credit to the leads, I really think there was one guy who showed a lot of promise and talent, while the rest, I felt, were a little stiff and inconsistent at times. Let’s all give a big hand to O’Shea Jackson, Jr. As an Ice Cube fan, he’s got so many of his father’s mannerisms that in some scenes it felt very eerie watching him be Cube. But Jackson, Jr. has something his father didn’t have: flexibility. Ice Cube’s whole career as an actor has been built upon the character of Ice Cube. I think his son can show a lighter side that his father never had. He comes across as more vulnerable and has a better sense of humor. I’d also like to tip my hat to Paul Giamatti for his strong performance as Jerry Heller. It’s a thankless role, but he was the perfect portrayal of a businessman that sees an opportunity – and busts his ass to make it happen. Does he walk in areas of moral gray in taking advantage of the group? Undoubtedly. But this is not so much an indictment of Heller but a statement about the condition of the entertainment industry.
Most of my issues with the movie come strictly on the storytelling side. I think you make a great point that the second half of the movie doesn’t have the power and flow that the first half did. I see that as a missed opportunity to really delve into the conflicts that were created by the group and look into the misguided behavior that the violent rap-game culture created. Ice Cube’s connection to the Muslim community in conjunction with his potentially anti-Semitic lyrics were glossed over with a short (albeit very funny) interview scene. Dr. Dre has a long history of violence against women. There were eight years of conflict between the members of N.W.A. that culminated into an era of really great hip hop music. Leaving out the Dre diss of Eazy-E on “(Fuck wit) Dre Day” and Eazy-E’s return shot “Realmuthaphukkin’ Gs” was really unfortunate because I feel like the power in this movie was in following the members and seeing how they harnessed their incredible talent and raw emotions. By focusing on their lives and their struggles, I think the movie could have come together in a more complete look at the birth of west coast reality rap. While they did a great job bringing black violence and black anger to the screen, I felt that the message was stronger when you looked directly at the characters and not try to send a relatively cliche message through the symbolic tying of bandanas.
I didn’t even know what that bandana scene meant. It took me a bit of Internet research to find that it symbolizes a truce between the Bloods and the Crips. No doubt that’s supposed to be a powerful, significant image, but honestly, I didn’t get that impression because there was no context behind it. I agree with your point that the film would be more complete had it just focused on the characters. The decision to include the riots feels very forced and distracts from what’s honestly more compelling onscreen, which is the group and their struggles with their lives and one another. That’s not to say that the riots aren’t important; I just think that the film shoehorned them in instead of having its characters actively react to them – here, they’re just passive passengers. The best films write stories from their characters, so it’s disappointing to see this film start off on the right track and then veer off several times later on.
One thing you mentioned is how the film leaves out Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women, and I feel compelled to address that since it has caused a bit of uproar since the film’s release. The movie has both Dre and Ice Cube as producers, so anyone who was hoping that it would be frank and open with their histories (particularly Dre’s) was bound to be disappointed from the start. Their characters aren’t exactly saints here, but they are sanitized. I do want to point out that nearly every female character is treated like shit, which left a bad taste in my mouth. Honestly, I can’t recall any other recent film where the the majority of women are either nagging family members or disposable window dressing. Heck, none of them even register as characters. Perhaps the movie does that to point out just how badly women were treated in those spaces and times, but come on – not one female character who’s not annoying or expendable?
I’m really glad you pointed out just how significant this movie is. This is a movie fronted by a black cast and made by black filmmakers, and people are simply flocking to the theaters to watch it. Black cinema has made good progress over the past year with Selma (excellent) and Dope (which I have yet to see), and black filmmakers can only go up from here, which bodes well for diversity in Hollywood.
Thank you for bringing up the foul treatment of women. I’m not sure if you’ve seen Friday, but I both loved and detested the “Bye Felicia” scene. I loved that they were paying homage to one of my favorite films, and I even thought the joke made sense. I just wish they would have gone a different route. However, it’s very hard to take a deep look at a group like N.W.A. and not treat women as eye candy. That was the culture at the time. I thought that as disgusting as it was, it gave you an authentic look. I know there has been a lot of backlash to those scenes, but I actually think they add value by showing the public just how terrible things were. I’m not sure there’s a way to sugarcoat that type of culture? I certainly didn’t get the sense that this movie was about turning them into saints. So what was their option?
Where they missed an opportunity was finding one or two female characters that could cut through all that party lifestyle bullshit. To echo your statement, Dre’s mother came off as very unsupportive and nagging. There was plenty of screen time in the second half of the movie to show Tomika Woods-Wright or Kim Woodruff (Eazy’s and Cube’s wives respectively) as being significant players in their husband’s professional lives, but they really just scratched the surface. I would even argue that the two female characters felt the LEAST authentic out of the entire cast because they spent so much time being eye candy and so little time on their roles as the most important women in the artists’ lives. Had they developed them a little more, I think they could have sent a much more positive message.
And we keep coming back to the missteps they made in the second half of the film, but I had really mixed feelings about the inclusion of Tupac. He was such an iconic figure during that time, and it felt so patched together. I really thought the casting hurt. Pac was such an interesting artist because he was a dichotomy of rage and soul. Unfortunately, Marcc Rose’s depiction of him end up coming off as a manic hood rapper. It didn’t do him justice. And I was ready for it. When they started playing the beat for “California Love,” I almost wet myself. Overall though, I’m glad they inserted key members of the Death Row crew (Suge Knight, Snoop, etc.) because I really feel like that’s the label that ended up being the flag-bearers of west coast hip hop.
I second your thoughts regarding the women in this film. Eazy-E and Cube’s wives were just dropped into the narrative, and I actually had to pull myself out of the movie and wonder where they even came from. They’re just there to, well, be there. Like you said, I’m sure that in reality, they played significant roles in these rappers’ lives, but it would have been nice to see them have active roles in the story, which would offset the way women are poorly portrayed in the film’s first half. After doing some reading about women in that era of hip-hop culture, I agree with you about how this misogynist and unfortunate time for women really can’t be sugarcoated. Placing fleshed-out female characters with agency would have helped this film’s case a lot, though.
Regarding Tupac – I know where you’re coming from, but the way I see it is that he was meant to be a cameo and nothing more. Same thing with Snoop Dogg, though he does have more screen time than Tupac. That said, I enjoyed it when the film brought them in to highlight their collaborations with Dre.
As for Suge Knight, I wish they fleshed him out more. I actually didn’t know who he was until his arrest this year, and his rise in the film didn’t make much sense to me. First time we see him, he’s a bodyguard. Next thing we know, he’s a record producer? I’m not saying that he isn’t a serviceable character, but that’s all he is.
I think we’ve spent a lot of time bashing the movie when we both enjoyed it. While it has its failures, I appreciated the intent behind the film. I never believed Cube and Dre, who are both producers, would make the decision to take a deep, in-depth look at the worst parts of their histories. And with Woods-Wright also on board as a producer, I assumed that they would be painting Eazy-E in a very sympathetic light. But there’s a reason that their contemporaries are loving this movie – it really does channel the spirit of the west coast hip-hop game. It also speaks to what they feel is the reason behind the anger of that generation of artists: the mistreatment of the black community.
There’s one performance I mentioned earlier but still feel like we haven’t given enough credit: Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Jerry Heller. He could have easily come across as a sleazy, money-hungry business mogul looking to make a few bucks off of these incredible talents, but I think there was a truly damaged and complex man being shown on screen. By the end of the film I wasn’t mad at Heller; I felt mostly pity. He may have been the catalyst of what took down N.W.A., but I never got the sense that there was any malicious intent. I believed that he cared for Eric. For a man who has been villainized for his role in their rise and fall, this was a humanizing performance. Although I believe the most powerful scene occurred during the standoff between the group and Jerry against the Torrance PD, the best moment by any one actor has to go to Giamatti during the final interaction between Heller and Eazy. There was so much desperation and guilt, mixed with true affection for someone who may have been the closest thing to a son. Just a remarkable effort.
I can’t help but go back to the great job the lead cast did in the moments where they needed to show authentic emotional response. Whether it’s rage, indignation, excitement… I feel like they captured what the entire population was feeling when they were exposed to N.W.A. When confronted with the raw talent and intensity they brought to their music, the public could not help but stand in awe of their presence. Combine that with Paul Giamatti’s representation of Heller, and you had a truly compelling film that was able to capture the public’s attention. I said it in my first email and I’ll repeat it again – this was the right movie for the general public. Critics and hardcore fans will find obvious omissions and missed marks but the truth of the matter is that it has been embraced by audiences everywhere. For everything I may wish it did, I appreciate it more for what it accomplished. Final thoughts, highbrow?
Yeah, I was reading through what we wrote, and we’ve definitely spent more time focusing on the negatives than positives. From the looks of it, we both think that the film has a clear vision for what it wants to be and what it wants to do, but it falls just a bit short and stumbles from some clunky or unfortunate storytelling choices.
And yet, in many ways, this is the right movie to watch right now, and I recommend that everyone catch it while it’s still in theaters. Yes, it’s a confidently directed film in which a fantastic cast (as you noted, kudos to Giamatti, though he’s ultimately here to support the three leads) brings the voice of a long-mistreated community to the big screen in a compelling manner, but there’s more to it than that. It came out at the right time, too – with what’s been happening in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other cities in the past year, never has a movie felt so relevant to all the anger and controversy that we’ve seen. It also came out at a time where audiences and critics are calling for more diversity, not just in cinema but Hollywood – if anyone supports this cause, then watch this movie and encourage others to do so as well. It’s already doing well with both critics and audiences, but we all know it is perfectly capable of reaching millions more.
All in all, watch Straight Outta Compton. It just may be the most important film of the year.
Andrew’s Rating: 3.75/5.0
Jun’s Rating: 4.0/5.0
* Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures