I rarely feel floored anymore by a given movie, but in all honesty, “Straight Outta Compton” is the best non-Pixar film I’ve seen this year. It’s unlikely to appeal to all audiences (and indeed, will potentially be off-putting to many viewers); regardless, “Compton” is a well-made, challenging drama that tells a story many WASP Americans (including me) have never heard.
“Straight Outta Compton” is the true story of controversial rap group N.W.A., featuring hip-hop legends Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren (though the latter two don’t have much to do here). During its heyday in the early 1990s, N.W.A. was known for its aggressive lyrics, vivid verbal depictions of urban violence, and unprecedented mainstream success. (Entering the cinema, I had to show my ID to three different theater employees at various points, ostensibly stationed outside the auditorium to “prevent kids from sneaking in.” Some controversies, at least, aren’t likely to die anytime soon.).
F. Gary Gray’s direction is surehanded and engaging: “Compton” clocks in at two and a half hours, the length of a typical overstuffed summer blockbuster, but feels far shorter. Not once does the pacing sag or momentum falter; as someone unfamiliar with the tale of N.W.A.’s rise, I found their story extraordinarily involving. Where skeptical yet intrigued viewers are concerned, “Straight Outta Compton” is unlikely to produce a taste for rap music, but it undeniably produces an appreciation of the genre. Central to this is Andre (“Dr. Dre”) Young, the creative force behind N.W.A.’s success and an exceptionally successful independent producer since the group’s breakup. Whether or not one personally enjoys his work, it’s impossible to deny Dre’s seismic impact upon not only the hip-hop world, but upon countless other genres (pop, country, R&B) that have since adopted similar musical stylings. “Straight Outta Compton” highlights his artistic genius and gave me new appreciation for his contributions.
This is not only a good movie, it is an important one: a portrait of a world far removed from yuppiedom, where real art flourishes despite persistent discrimination and violence. Gratifyingly, Gray’s film displays a readiness to engage with the serious, thought-provoking thematic questions underlying the N.W.A. narrative.
How does one respond to ostensibly legitimate authority figures behaving in an utterly illegitimate manner? The unjustified police harassment faced by N.W.A.’s members – even in utterly banal contexts, such as a visit to their manager’s office – is wrenchingly depicted onscreen. Accordingly, the music produced by the early hip-hop titans – suffused as it was with anger, profanity, and violence – emerged out of real events and real frustrations. The group’s controversial songs constituted a depiction, not a glorification, of a particular community’s experience (whether the same could be said for the work of contemporary rap artists is, naturally, an open question).
To what extent should self-expression be voluntarily tempered by a sense of social responsibility? In an early scene, N.W.A. performs its notorious song “F*** Tha Police” in an exhilaratingly defiant stand against censorious authorities. This riotous glee is later contraposed against grisly images from the Rodney King riots, in which the antiestablishment lyrics of N.W.A. were frequently co-opted by protesters. How should one’s “artistic expression” be balanced against the possible blowback?
“Straight Outta Compton” is something of a niche movie, and many will likely believe it to be an uncritical celebration of “rap culture” (as one might expect given the subject matter here, the use of strong profanity literally never stops throughout – a TV-edit version would essentially be a silent film). For those willing to look past this, however, “Compton” is a fascinating exploration of the history and sophistication of an art form with which many white Americans are likely unfamiliar. Further, it raises questions of authority, power, and artistic responsibility that are as salient today as they were a quarter-century ago, but resists the urge to give pat answers.
In short, I found myself both intellectually and artistically edified by this film. And that is the highest praise I know how to bestow.
A well-produced, incredibly compelling docudrama that artfully juggles character development, thematic depth, and cultural relevance. Highly recommended.