Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Straight Outta Compton": Can't Meet Its Own Hype

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay

I need to start this review with a huge disclaimer: Straight Outta Compton is not a bad movie.  The unfortunate reality, though, is that it isn’t a particularly great one.  I normally don’t get my hopes up for biopics, particularly those about artist celebrities, because the critical praise is usually overblown and everyone seems to ignore the fact that biopics are relatively safe projects that can get away with not taking risks under the guise of staying true to history.  I was hoping that Straight Outta Compton would be different, particularly because of its focus on a black demographic and the unique cultural perspective inherent in the rap community.  Unfortunately, that is only true to a degree.

The first third of the film is the most interesting, watching Compton-raised Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube (portrayed by the rapper’s own son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) start mixing their own beats and writing their own rhymes about the perils of their daily lives, only to find that their music spoke to their peers in a way that other music of the time simply wasn’t.  The biggest draw of rap as a musical style is the sense of background and history that rappers bring to their craft, how they convey their real experiences through rhyme and beat, and the film manages to maintain that compelling ethos through most of the first act, even if our three leads remain fairly stock in their portrayals.

But once the artists start hitting the big time and N.W.A. falls under the corrupting influence of their manager Jerry Heller (a typically sleazy Paul Giamatti), the film becomes a pretty hackneyed rags-to-riches tale, with the corrupting power of money driving Easy-E away from the art, which in turn pushes Dre further into his art and away from the group, and creating a schism with Cube that results in a years-long rivalry.  I came into this film knowing almost nothing of the history of N.W.A., and yet I was still able to predict almost every story beat and even the film’s forced climax.  This is just another example of forcing people’s lives into fitting a standardized narrative arc, which makes the biopic the most unnecessarily lazy type of screenplay, no matter how much clout the film gets for being “based on a true story.”

I imagine this film received a lot of praise for reasons beyond its biopic status, including its positive portrayal of impoverished black characters and its timely inclusion of police brutality against people of color that is once again in the public eye.  These are certainly good reasons to commend the film, and as I disclaimed before, this film is not bad by any means.  It’s okay that it’s only pretty average, but the fact that it’s a pretty unique brand of average seems to have grabbed people’s attentions.  If N.W.A. interests you or you are part of the desperately underserved black demographic, I doubt this film will disappoint.  However, if you’re looking for a film to meet the hype that Straight Outta Compton has accumulated, I think you’d best look elsewhere.

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