I went to see Straight Outta Compton forgetting that I had loved the trailer for the film, which means that I had a blank slate going in, and if the film was any good it was going to have to convince me of this on its own terms.
I also went in convinced a biopic on gangsta rap would have to come a long way to take in a college-educated white kid who actually studied, you know, classic poetry, back in the day, in college. What did gangsta rap have to teach me, anyway?
Everything. Straight Outta Compton, which made $56.1 million in its first weekend out — a record for a biopic — is a profound, solid, masterful biography of a poetic and musical movement in the United States that is as fundamentally American as bluegrass, jazz or baseball. On its merits, poetry, like any other art form, has to go backwards once in a while and if Jackson Pollack can throw paint at a canvas, then Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy-E can throw fast rhymes together and not only get away with it, but put their hardened emotional lives into verse (and later into film) without apology. Is rap primal? OK. Is rap abrasive? All the better. Is rap inspiring? One can only hope.
It took 15 minutes or less to realize that this F. Gary Gray-directed biopic, featuring O’Shea Jackson as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell as Easy-E with Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, is a terrific film, which set in suspicions that it would quickly aim for some obvious sentimental story line. It never comes close to that (thank God). Even with Easy-E dying of HIV at the sadly premature age of 31, this is one unapologetic film, all the more appropriate for the unapologetic art it represents.
Much of the credit goes to Gray and producers Ice Cube, Tomica Woods-Wright, Matt Alvarez, Scott Bernstein and Dr. Dre, who resisted temptation to clutter the film with hundreds of side-stories that would have been fun to tell. This is a tough-love, hard-core film and it doesn’t require comic relief. You’ll see when you see it.
I went in skeptical and I came away from the film angry. And if every life is political on some level, you will come out angry, too.
Rating: 5 Stars
~ Anthony Hall