Entertainment

‘Compton’ Captures Gangsta Era

Biopic seizes on corrupt cops, raging rap

We’ve seen everything in “Straight Outta Compton” before in previous music biopics.

The rags to riches arc. The egos and infighting which bring the musicians down. Greed unchecked and oily music executives. Only this time the camera focuses on gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., a group unlike any before it.

“Compton” chronicles the rap scene from the late 1980s through the tumultuous ’90s, an era marked by the Rodney King trial and the crack epidemic’s wake. N.W.A. led the way, dropping incendiary tracks that hooked black and white audiences alike. It’s exhilarating and depressing at regular intervals, a celebration of raw talent and free speech one moment, and the not so subtle message that violence can solve cultural inequalities the next.

The film opens with a series of Compton, California, vignettes revealing the future band mates’ world. Gunfire, gang threats and drugs shadowed them, but Easy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) want more than gang memberships. They’d rather start their own record label and rap about their life, their struggles.

The group’s rise is dramatic and never without controversy, allowing them to enjoy the excess pop stars routinely savor.

Easy-E fortuitously bumps into Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a veteran music producer impressed by the rapper’s material. Together, with co-conspirators MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) the friends use Easy-E’s killer track (“Boyz in the Hood”) to start Ruthless Records. N.W.A. is born.

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The group’s rise is dramatic and never without controversy, allowing them to enjoy the excess pop stars routinely savor. The emphasis is on girls, not drugs, and the film does little to dent the genre’s misogyny rap. Trouble brews over contracts and the group’s alarming rap anthem “F*** tha Police” which draws the ire of law enforcement wherever they tour.

We see the band mates repeatedly harassed by L.A.’s not-so-finest. That fuels their rage, but it leaves a question the films brushes aside. Is it responsible to cut such a record? Do these songs glorify thug life, or is it the “reality rap” the band members contend?for-adults

“Compton” doesn’t have time to explore the tougher charges leveled against hardcore rap. When Ice Cube trashes his boss’ office after learning he got burned by a business deal, it’s treated as cathartic, not criminal. It’s more celebratory in tone, a clear link to the fact that several former N.W.A. members produced the film.

R. Marcus Taylor’s Suge Knight emerges as the story’s true villain. He’s even worse than the real headlines surrounding his business maneuvers, an irredeemable monster who epitomizes the worst of gangsta rap.

“Compton” doesn’t have time to explore the tougher charges leveled against hardcore rap.

Performances are strong throughout, particularly Mitchell’s rap pioneer who brings talent, motivation and a warm heart to the role. That Easy-E’s hard living led to his AIDS diagnosis is there for all to see, although the film won’t connect those dots for us. The letdown here is Jackson, playing his father 20-plus years ago. The original Cube has a glare all his own, but his son lacks that scowl and screen presence.

“Straight Outta Compton” ultimately covers too much ground, bloating its running time to nearly two and a half hours. It’s raucous and entertaining throughout, even for those who never owned the now iconic album that gives the film its title. Those willing to celebrate the music without expanding on the bigger cultural questions will enjoy “Compton” the most.

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