All musical bio-movies seem to follow the same script. A group or an individual rises from poverty to the heights of fame. Along the way they get taken advantage of by a manager and end up casting said manager aside. There are drugs and sex. Allegiances get twisted and frayed, but by the end of the movie there is a renewed sense of purpose of making music.
Straight Outta Compton follows this script well. We see a group of young African-American men rise from Compton, a place where life and death hang in a delicate balance.
Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a drug hustler who hooks up with Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to form what became NWA. They are joined by MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.).
The group cuts a record which gains the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who forms a record company with Eazy-E called Ruthless Records.
At the beginning, Eazy-E is the business front of the group. All the money flows to him and Heller. As time goes on the group becomes hugely popular with sold out shows all around the country.
A dispute over record royalties causes Ice Cube to leave the group and a war of words begins between him and the group. This leads to the group splintering apart.
The problems are laid at Heller’s feet. He cheats the other members of the group and looks after the interests of Eazy-E. But as time passes Heller only looks out for himself and hard times come to Eazy-E.
All this sounds like “boiler plate” movie making. So what puts Straight Outta Compton above the rest?
It has to do with the environment from which these young men come. F. Gary Gray, the director, spares nothing to show how African-American males are treated by the police.
There are repeated scenes where police harass members of the group. The only rationale is that they are black and being black makes them suspect.
When they are recording their first album, the group takes a break and walk outside. The police see them congregating outside and they jump to the conclusion that they are up to no good. The police make all of them lie face down on the ground for no other reason than that these black men look like those who they think are drug dealers. The police taunt and ridicule them. The group responds with anger and cursing. It is Heller, who is white, who intercedes for them and keeps them from being arrested.
This is the reason why one of their most famous songs came into existence. It expresses the frustration of always being a suspect and always being seen as guilty before proven innocent. All of this takes place in the late 1980s.
Even though set in the past, there is a timeliness to Straight Outta Compton. The headlines of unarmed African-American young men being killed and the “Black Lives Matter” movement all bring into relief that the problems portrayed in the movie are still with us today.
Straight Outta Compton is a vulgar, ugly movie. But it portrays a vulgar, ugly picture of being an African-American in America.
When Trayon Martin was killed, I asked Congressman John Lewis what I should say to my congregation. His response was there needs to be dialogue in church about Martin’s death and about the issue of race and social justice in America.
Straight Outta Compton, if viewed in the proper light, offers a chance for that dialogue to happen. It shows white America the struggle of being a young black man in America, and that struggle is not pretty. This movie makes that clear.
Straight Outta Compton
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff
With: O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller)