INSPIRED – “Can’t put a price on peace of mind,” Dr. Dre tells Suge Knight as he walks out on him and his Death Row Records relationship in Straight Outta Compton, a cinch for a Best Picture nomination come Oscar time.
And you surely cannot put a price on how precise casting casting is the most predictable recipe for success in most films, especially bio pics.
Director F. Gary Gray made all the right calls in Straight Outta Compton, the “true” story of the rise and fall of the original “gangsta rap” group N.W.A. from the late 1980’s.
Gray cast all relatively unknown actors to play the influential group’s rap artists.
Corey Hawkins nails the commanding alpha presence required to bring to life the visionary N.W.A. founder, Dr. Dre. Jason Mitchell brings not only an authentic L.A. street vibe to the tragic role of Eazy-E, but also navigates the emotional terrain with powerful grace. And then there is the coup of selecting N.W.A. pioneer turned household name Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. to play his dad.
It’s not simply that Jackson’s performance is dynamic and well-rounded, it’s the immediately evident credibility he brings to the role and the entire film. This film was made with intimate collaboration from the people who were there, who made this controversial music and lived these turbulent lives.
The film covers a lot of territory…maybe too much. It is at its best when showing the artists in their creation space, inspired by what’s going on around them and turning their daily diaries in to music that would change the complexion of not only rap, but what became the Hip Hop phenomenon.
One could easily be turned off by the group’s overtly antagonistic posturing and lyrics aimed at Los Angeles law enforcement. Because of this, Gray wisely goes to great lengths to portray the “war on drugs” gang banger climate of the era and how high tensions were on both sides of the law – and all of the innocent bystander collateral damage that goes with that.
The narrative gets a bit redundant and subversive in repeatedly using the 1991 Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots as not only a backdrop for these times, but possibly an alibi for these actions and attitudes.
Our men and women in blue deserve respect, admiration, and a big fat “thank you” for all they do to maintain law and order in all of our major cities.
But this is a solid film told from the heart from a director who has been at this for a long time and has finally hit his home run.
I will be shocked if F. Gary Gray is not singled out by both the Director’s Guild and the Academy for his direction of Straight Outta Compton.
Among the cast, Mitchell is given the opportunity to chew up the most scenery, giving a performance that might be recognized come award season. Veteran character actor Paul Giamatti also stands out as Jerry Heller, the group’s first manager, who brokered the divide amongst the rappers with nefarious contracts. Coincidentally, Giamatti plays a similarly unsympathetic self-serving cancer in the Beach Boys’ bio pic, Love & Mercy. Might Giamatti be nominated for both? He’s that good in these roles.
More than Giamatti, what both Straight Outta Compton and Love & Mercy have in common is their ability to shine a bright light on artistic inspiration and how the driving, relentless desire and integrity of an artist can elevate an art form.
Both films are a must see.
*If you are planning to take young teens to Straight Outta Compton, beware there is, not surprisingly given the subject matter, wall-to-wall foul language as well as substantial nudity.