Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape

Restrepo


Restrepo

A soldier during one of the quieter moments of Restrepo.

(2010) Documentary (National Geographic) Dan Kearney, Brendan O’Byrne, Joshua McDonough, Juan “Doc” Restrepo, Stephen Gillespie, Aron Hijar, Angel Toves, Tanner Sichter, Miguel Cortes, Misha Pemble-Belkin, Sterling Jones, LaMonta Caldwell. Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

For 15 months in 2007 and 2008, the men of the second platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade were stationed in what CNN called the most dangerous place on Earth – the Korengal Valley, a desolate and arid place in Afghanistan which is apparently riddled with Taliban insurgents. They were accompanied by author Sebastian Junger and veteran combat photographer Tim Hetherington, who captured their ordeal with over 150 hours of footage, augmented with interviews taken after the soldiers had returned home.

We never see the filmmakers nor do we hear their voices. There is no narration, no music. Simply the words of the soldiers themselves, the sound of gunfire and the occasional lowing of cows and shrieking of howler monkeys and that’s enough.

They are surrounded by 10,000 foot mountains in a valley that is like shooting fish in a barrel, as one soldier comments – except that they’re the fish. They live in an outpost that offers barely enough shelter and is named for one of their number who dies early in their deployment – and is seen at the beginning and end of the film clowning with his buddies on the flight to Afghanistan. His inclusion is a poignant reminder of the true cost of war.

The soldiers are led by Captain Dan Kearney, an earnest and committed young man who has weekly meetings with the local elders in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the community. It is often frustrating for him, wondering if he’s making any headway with them.

War has been described as days of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror and you get that sense with firefights erupting seemingly out of thin air. The tension that the men feel is palpable, especially during an exercise called Operation Rock Avalanche in which the men go from village to village looking for Taliban fighters, one muttering as they enter a bucolic meadow that they are sitting ducks.

The filmmakers wisely avoid showing the bloodier side of the business; they respect the soldiers too much for that. The soldiers that don’t make it through die off-camera, the pain of their passing shown by the reactions of their comrades. The filmmakers also don’t comment on the political nature of the war; they don’t take sides – rather they just present the daily lives of those fighting the conflict which winds up making a more powerful statement than they might have in foisting their opinions on us verbally.

The men of the platoon (and they are all men) are not adrenaline junkies or hotheads as sometimes soldiers are depicted to be; they are thoughtful and responsible, doing a job that is nearly impossible (in fact, the U.S. pulled out its troops from the area in April 2010). If these are the young people serving our country, then we should be doubly proud of them and the tragedy of losing such people is even more poignant.

It is also necessary to report that co-director Hetherington passed away earlier this year in Libya when the unit he was covering came under fire. It seems that the nature of war is to wipe out the resources of good men and women who deserve a long, productive life, a life taken away from them – and from us as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A harrowing and gritty look at the sacrifices our men and women in the armed forces make.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is what you’d expect from soldiers under fire, and there is some wartime violence depicted as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Junger wrote ”The Perfect Storm” which was later turned into a movie with George Clooney.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are updates on the soldiers written by the men themselves. There are also some promos on various veteran assistance programs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie broke even or maybe even made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides