Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #497
Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 11, 2015
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $200,300,000
Running Time: 147 minutes
Director: F. Gary Gray
Producers: Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, F. Gary Gray, Scott Bernstein, Dr. Dre
Screenplay: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Story: S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, Andrea Berloff
Special Effects: Eric Rylander
Visual Effects: Bernhard Kimbacher
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Score: Joseph Trapanese
Editing: Billy Fox
Studios: Legendary Pictures, New Line Cinema, Cube Vision, Crucial Films, Broken Chair Flickz
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carra Patterson, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Joshua Brockington, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriél Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Bruce Beatty, Corey Reynolds, Tate Ellington, Rogelio Douglas Jr.
Suggested Audio Candy
 N.W.A. “Straight Outta Compton”
 N.W.A. “Fuck The Police”
 N.W.A. “100 Miles & Runnin”
This one is bang in my comfort zone. You see, I brushed my teeth to rap music growing up and my interest coincided with the emergence of numerous eighties talents. Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane were just some of the artists flourishing while I made the transition into adolescence and I hung from every word of theirs that filled the airwaves. Another favorite were Public Enemy and, while most crews were content to brag over their fat gold chains and tricked-up rides, this Long Island outfit meshed shrill hook lines with politically charged observations over the way in which African-Americans were being treated. They had something to say and their 1988 sophomore album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is not just one of the greatest rap albums ever released but also rightly regarded as one of the finest albums period.
The early nineties saw my fascination with rap begin to wane and, by 1993, I had become exasperated by the movement’s increasing shift from brash breakbeats towards soulful grooves. However, N.W.A. arrived on the scene just before I hung up my Kangol. The fact that the Compton-based troop’s name was an abbreviation for Niggaz Wit Attitudes ensured that they courted controversy from the very start as the word “nigga” was considered hugely offensive and an unwanted reminder of the trials and tribulations black people suffered during generations of slavery and ill-treatment. They used it unapologetically when nobody else would dream of uttering the word and were publicly named and shamed for their complete lack of sensitivity.
In 1988, N.W.A. unleashed their first studio album Straight Outta Compton on Ruthless Records and caused widespread panic with its explicit content. It wasn’t just the manner in which the F-bomb frequented each verse or their insistence on referring to the opposite sex “bitches” that riled purists, but also the fact that their music was seen to glorify crime. Fuck The Police was so direct in its approach to protesting police brutality that the F.B.I. even got involved at one point and it appeared as though they had crossed the line one too many times. However, they stood firm, insisting that their music was a reflection of the bubbling anger of urban youth and that they were simply exercising their rightful freedom of speech. It was a dirty job but, at that point in time, somebody needed to do it.
Compton, California was a pressure cooker set to explode and street violence was at an all-time high, with numerous gangs vying for superiority and the judicial system failing spectacularly and only serving to fuel the fire. N.W.A. dealt in harsh truths, regardless of whether or not America was ready to listen, and triple platinum record sales suggested that their timing was spot-on. The evolution of West Coast hip hop rested squarely on their shoulders and they were more than willing to become martyrs for their cause. However, for all of their unflinchingly honest endeavor, they fell foul to unscrupulous executives and were consistently shafted until they eventually turned on each other. Unsurprisingly, their struggles haven’t been particularly well documented over the years and F. Gary Gray’s film looks to set a few things straight.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the figures, as I think we can safely say that the plan has worked a treat. Over $200 million in box office receipts despite its R-rating, paired with pretty much unanimous praise from critics and moviegoers alike, has cemented Straight Outta Compton as one of 2015’s most vital motion pictures. Clearly it is still relevant and, moreover, the public have backed the film by putting their hands in their pockets and not just in North America either. However, not everyone has been satisfied with the end product. M.C. Ren has stated his frustration at being relegated to a largely tertiary character although he still supports the movie, while former manager Jerry Heller was spitting blood at the way in which he is portrayed. Over twenty years down the line and N.W.A. are still causing a commotion.
Straight Outta Compton reveals the “niggaz” one by one and provides us with ample reasoning as to why they possessed such “attitude”. No expense is spared in highlighting the issues that they have to deal with on a daily basis, such as being subjected to harsh treatment on their own doorsteps just because of the color of their skin. What Gray does, and does well, is to reveal to the audience just how regular a group of guys they are and focus on their burning desire to make something of themselves and escape their ghetto confines. After a brief and exhilarating introduction to Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is next under the spotlight and I guess that is only right as this world-beating music producer is fast approaching a billion in net worth and was instrumental in the group’s rise to infamy.
Before too long, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) joins the party and both Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown) make up the numbers during an intimate first act that sets everything up rather sweetly. Gray goes to great lengths to show them in their truest light as it is imperative that their humanity be clear before overblown egos and bitter disputes come into play. Here are five young black men with the same goal, that being to make badass music, and not hold back from reporting the truth about what’s really going on in the hood. Of course, it isn’t long before the unity is compromised and the middle act charts that steady progression well.
After being “discovered” by Heller (Paul Giamatti) and taken under his wing, things start to happen fast for the troop and soon they have snagged themselves the attention of the high-flying Priority Records label. None of them are industry savvy but Heller appears to have their backs, particularly Eazy-E who receives his special attention. Their album goes global in no time and things look decidedly rosy, despite inciting the fury of all manner of haters. If you are looking to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs then good luck with that. Their meteoric progression to superstar status is at the expense of being branded villainous and every risk they choose to take is both calculated and committed.
You can always count on the suits to fuck up a good thing and that is precisely what happens as tensions reach breaking point and contract disputes threaten to derail the whole outfit. All the while, the nefarious Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) is waiting in the wings for the very moment the first cracks begin to show. Any of us already familiar with the N.W.A. story will know exactly how things pan out but, for the uninitiated amongst us, I shall refrain from delving any deeper as it makes for a fascinating and enlightening piece of Black American history delivered directly from the front line. Let’s just say that it gets decidedly messy fast.
The performances, particularly from the three focal members, are uniformly excellent. Hawkins and Mitchell bear uncanny resemblances to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E and approach their respective parts with considerable gusto, finding the fine line between bravado and sensitivity. Meanwhile, Jackson Jr. is an inspired choice to play his real-life father and the apple truly hasn’t fallen far from the tree as the way in which he inhibits Ice Cube is uncanny in its authenticity.
As for the ever-brilliant Giamatti, this is the kind of role he was born to play, and one in which he is commonly cast, so he breezes through with the customary nervous energy. Heller may be pissed off which the way in which he has been presented but he should be polishing Giamatti’s brogues for at least making him appear affable. The screenplay from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff gives him plentiful prime rib to chew.
Despite an overwhelmingly positive response, Straight Outta Compton has drawn a dash of criticism for being hypocritical and I find this ridiculously short-sighted. While championing individualism and freedom of speech, it has been remarked that the film glosses over any violent tendencies the group collectively reveal. Folk seem to conveniently forget the harsh realities they had been forced to endure and the fact that they received their real education from the street.
Society created and shaped N.W.A. and we need to accept that they aren’t always going to act like upstanding pillars of the community. Gray doesn’t glorify their behavior but neither does he waste good screen time pointing out the obvious. His matter-of-fact approach keeps us from becoming bogged down in moralizing their actions and ensures that the 147 minute running time rattles past like a turbo-charged lowrider.
Straight Outta Compton tells an enthralling story and one with huge cultural relevance, even twenty years on. The music sounds as fresh as it did back in the eighties, perhaps even more so, and the film moves at a fast enough clip to prevent losing traction. Ultimately, it all boils down to whether or not you grew up with big beats and profanities ringing in your ears like myself. The back story of N.W.A. is unlikely to appeal to everyone although, having said that, figures don’t lie. The fact that this has gone on to become a worldwide hit suggests two things to me. Firstly, a good story told well will always appeal to audiences, regardless of their musical tastes. Most critically, the music industry is still backed up with corruption and this still very much needs addressing. One thing is for damned sure. They may not have always gone about things the right way but the Boyz-n-the-Hood sure knew how to express themselves.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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