Straight Outta Compton

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 14, 2015

Jason Mitchell stars in 'Straight Outta Compton'
Jason Mitchell stars in 'Straight Outta Compton'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

This summer has given us a supposed epic for every weekend, and yet they all come out looking the same: There's a charismatic white guy superhero (literally or otherwise), a smart-aleck female sidekick who banters with him while trying to keep up, and a branded property to center it all around. You know how it works; you've bought the tickets.

So bully for "Straight Outta Compton," the summer's unlikeliest epic: A nearly two-and-a-half-hour biopic/rise-and-fall yarn split right down the middle about the ramifications of one album. Most blockbusters come equipped with mountains of printed exposition that we need to keep up with. This one just puts the character's names on-screen, and it does it with sharpie.

If you're old enough, or if you listen to music, or if you watch movies, you know them already: Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr. -- Cube's real-life son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). The film certainly presumes that you're familiar; director F. Gary Gray makes them into myth. He has Eazy putting his trademark sunglasses on the moment after he delivers one of his most famous verses -- fully-formed, with perfect flow -- in his first-ever attempt. That's not reality, it's iconography.

And for the better part of an hour, Gray revels in it. Scenes play out like sexually explicit spins on old Howard Hawks musicals. There are character-defining musical performances (almost all cued from the eponymous album) followed by relatively undramatic "hang-out" scenes (in this case, the guys just happen to be "hanging out" mid-orgy). In interviews, the characters frame "Fuck the Police" as a call for activism, and the continued depictions of cops as inhuman racists belies the song's necessity. But behind closed doors, they're pure hedonists: Drugs, sex, mobster posturing. We met Cube in high school, and the rest of the N.W.A (save Eazy) while they worked side gigs in the DJ scene. The cosmic irony of the whole picture is that none of them lived the "gangsta" lifestyle until after they sold millions of albums about it.

Suge Knight, quick to pistol whip anyone who pulls into the wrong parking spot, plays an increasingly large role as the movie goes on. Gray dresses him in suits of red that grow darker in palette in each scene, til he looks like he's wearing a puddle of blood. Suge Knight is, obviously, a real person, but the purpose he serves here is symbolic: He's the devil on their shoulder, growing larger like Pinocchio's nose with every single sin. And the editing is equally skeptical of the group's ethical standing. More than once we cut directly from footage of the Rodney King beating directly into scenes involving vicious fights the group engaged in. After long enough, you can hardly tell the difference.

So "Straight Outta Compton" -- in addition to being a gangsta-rap-jukebox-musical, a Hawksian comedy, a rise-and-fall biopic, and a time capsule of late '80s black culture -- is also a self-critical examination of the group's own violent tendencies. It's an epic, all right, but one that's not nearly as cohesive as the album it's named after. The movie is more like a mixtape.