As much as they are maligned as an element of storytelling, both on screen or elsewhere, the reality is that clichés are reflections of reality, no matter how contrived they may seem when we encounter them. This latest film from F Gary Gray is ripe with clichéd characters, circumstances and events, yet it is drawn from the real-life experiences that led to the creation and of one of the most seminal hip-hop groups in history. Tracking the rise of N.W.A from the slums of Los Angeles to the dizzying heights of success, Straight Outta Compton has all the ingredients typical of such a story. A rags-to-riches trajectory, in-fighting, a shonky manager, sex, drugs and excess and a tragic turn of events are everything we would expect in a tale of this type and, as such, Straight Outta Compton delivers in spades. As we have seen previously in the likes of 8 Mile, hip-hop has proven to be a tool by which those entrenched in social disadvantage can deliver commentary on their experiences in an effort to address injustice whilst also providing a pathway to a life of unbridled success and all the inherent problems that it brings.
Emerging in the 1980’s as a hip-hop collective who crafted brutally honest rhymes and hardcore beats that relayed their frustration and anger about life in one of the most dangerous places in America – particularly if you happened to be a young black male – N.W.A brought a swagger and bravado to their music that enraptured their fans and infuriated that powers-that-be. Bristling with anger and blessed with talent, N.W.A (Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren) were vaunted and vilified in equal measure as they ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today. Anybody with even the most rudimentary knowledge of music history would be aware of the shit storm that swept the United States and other locales (Australia included) when N.W.A’s incendiary Fuck tha Police emerged as the first release from their debut album (also titled Straight Outta Compton). The film focuses largely on the relationship between Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jnr) and Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), a friendship undermined and ultimately fractured by manager Jerry Heller’s deception and dishonesty. As Heller, this is the second such performance from Paul Giamatti as a svengali-like manipulator in the music world following his turn as Dr Eugene Landy in Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy.
The performances are all impressive, with Mitchell and Jackson (who is playing his real-life father) particularly strong and, needless to say, the music is outstanding. Sure, the film is misogynistic in its depictions of women, but this is a reflection of the world in which the story takes place and hip-hop culture more broadly. Whilst the fact that it is a true story apparently allows us to be much more forgiving of the clichés around race, social class and hip-hop culture that permeate the narrative, how you react to the film will most likely depend on how much you know about the various characters, both as members of N.W.A and in the time since. Given that Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright served as producers, we were never going to get a fully-fledged warts-and-all insight into this story or the characters that populate it and, as such, the choice of Gray, who helmed the Ice Cube-starring Friday and myriad hip-hop videos for the likes of Outkast, Cypress Hill and R. Kelly, as director was an astute (and no doubt somewhat strategic) decision. For example, there is no mention of Dr Dre’s penchant for assaulting women. Other than Heller, the villain of the piece is Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), an easy enough target given his involvement in a litany of crimes that have resulted in several periods of incarceration, the most recent of which sees him behind bars following his involvement in a hit-and-run death in Compton last year.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Ruby Sparks, Black Swan) incorporates myriad visual flourishes – including surfeit lens flares – that bring a romantic energy to the mean streets of Compton and a gaudy glitz to the excesses that follow their rapid rise to the top. Sure, Straight Outta Compton suffers from a lack of objectivity – scrutiny that a fictional story of a similar ilk would not be burdened with – but it is pulsating and powerful at times and offers plenty of insight into the reality endured by young African-American men at the time (and it seems little has changed if recent events in places such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cincinnati are any indication) and the lasting impact and influence of the “world’s most dangerous group” on the hip-hop music scene.