Straight Outta Compton


Dir. F. Gary Gray, US, 2015

With characteristic bravado and unapologetic menace, Straight Outta Compton captures some of the foreboding power of gangsta rap, but at times its treatment of NWA appears stage managed.

Against a backdrop of urban poverty and racist police violence, a group of black teenagers begin to shake LA with their new music. The odds are stacked against success. Their families press for ‘real jobs’, police throw them over car bonnets without provocation, and hip hop remains an East Coast phenomenon. But NWA’s tales of street brutality are rich in their own currency – ‘realness’. These urban sermons strike a nerve that rumbles the US, enamouring the young and unnerving the old. NWA’s greatest adversary soon presents itself as the music industry, pitting the group’s members against each other. Youthful naivety meets business-driven reality, leaving NWA wondering what they really stand for.

At its strongest, this film captures something of the insurrection in gangsta rap. Its aesthetic is cool and moody, tense with the pressures of street life. The threat of violence permeates the screenplay, confidently paced and sustaining interest throughout its duration. It also cleverly picks at race relations, its comments no doubt resonating loudly in a climate scarred by police killings of black Americans.

However, at points there is a nagging feeling that Compton has an agenda beyond good cinema. There is an atmosphere of scores being settled, with certain sequences of dialogue that seem written for revisionist as much as artistic purposes. The flaws of the group members are rather safe, noble and somehow understandable, with a notable whitewashing of gender-based violence. Perhaps it couldn’t be otherwise, with Dr Dre and Ice Cube themselves producing, but the results are a lack of compelling characters and some unanswered political questions. With an act as controversial as NWA, it feels like a missed opportunity not to leverage key points of contention into memorable drama.

Frustrations notwithstanding, Compton offers an enjoyable biopic within a music genre that is seriously underrepresented in film. It’s a fair attempt that won’t leave hip hop heads disappointed.

Words: Tomasz Frymorgen.


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