2015 / Director. F Gary Gray.
Review by Shaun Crawford.
John Singleton, once the furthest reaching social commentator (and the youngest, he won his Best Director Oscar at the tender age of 23) of the African-American communities in film, has, of late, been lacklustre to say the least. Seemingly gone is the Singleton that scorched our screens with BOYZ N THE HOOD and BABY BOY and here to stay is the gun-for-hire that's releasing ABDUCTION and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS.
So with this once golden child fallen by the wayside, the mantle sits vacant. At one time, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON helmer F. Gary Gray seemed like he was the heir-apparent. At 26 he teamed up with Ice Cube and a then unknown Chris Tucker and delivered FRIDAY, a witty satire on the very films Singleton was producing at the time - a subversion of the zeitgeist that was wickedly paced and funny.
Backed up with the 'girls in the hood' action piece SET IT OFF followed by the Kevin Spacey/Sam Jackson powerhouse, THE NEGOTIATOR, Gray, like Singleton looked set to take over the world. Then he signed up for a host of studio films and followed the Singleton route of gun-for-hire before disappearing from view.
With STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON he returns to his roots - the grimy streets of LA, for this, his take on the rise-and-fall of hip-hop super group NWA. 1987 and hip-hop is on the rise. Sick of being harassed and unjustly persecuted, five friends channel their frustrations and anger into a rap group, N.W.A., and take on the law and society's prejudices of their culture head-on. Their song, 'Fuck The Police', becomes a rally-cry for a disenfranchised generation, but makes them unwitting political figures. The in-fighting, back-stabbing, fall-outs, reformations, disputes and trails that follow along the way make up the hefty 150 min running time.
It all sounds a little melodramatic, doesn't it? Ice Cube, however, has publicly declared the events herein to be true and accurate, which is a shame, because if he's telling the truth, that makes STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON two-and-a-half hours in the presence of violent, hypocritical, drug-dealing hip-hop artists who constantly claim to be the victims.
On a couple of occasions NWA are bailed up by the police, searched, questioned for doing little more than standing on a street-corner eating a sandwich - actions that would form the basis of their assault on modern America - being persecuted with no basis in law or humanity then the following scene has them talking about the dope they're slinging or has them thrusting assault rifles in dudes faces in hotel rooms...like criminals do.
Characters are lazily brought on to provide a little conflict when the script requires it and then are forgotten about when the scene finishes (Ice Cube's first partner and child...where did you go? Did Cube actually just abandon his child and his mother?), characters who claim to be full of heart and intellect stick around peers who humiliate and publicly shame strangers with pistols and violence.
The hypocrisy all becomes a little much.
The film verges on being a straight-up hip-hop classic. Matthew Libatiques camera seeks out all the grungy parts of early 90s LA, often shooting the members of NWA with bright lights blinding the screen with lens-flares - these guys, the shot says, were born to be stars - the soundtrack is, needless to say, amazing and, thanks to all the plot going on, the picture moves at a helluva pace and there is a legitimacy to the period. It feels like the 90s without becoming pastiche.
It's too bad the film becomes a visual retread of a wikipedia article. It's a blow-by-blow of the story we all know, in a film that sacrifices character depth and nuance for the sake of making sure ALL the plot gets in there (wait until you see the scene where NWA console Dr Dre after the passing of his brother ... it'll be a hard-call to top the rigidness and hilarity of the performances on show).
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON really could have used an early Singleton, Spike Lee or Gina Prince-bythewood to give a remarkable story some complexity, but as it is it's nothing you couldn't learn on a 40min TV special.
Not terrible, then, but nowhere near deserved of the hype.