By Shantel Schoenfelder
The biopic Straight Outta Compton depicts the rise and fall of the notorious hip hop group N.W.A, an abbreviation for “Niggaz with Attitude.” The film is directed by F. Gary Gray and focuses on the lives of the three main founders Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E. The film takes place in Compton, California in the 1980s and shows the journey of N.W.A as they are challenged by crime, white authority, and embezzling. The story is written by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff and screen played by Jonathan Herman as well as Andrea Berloff. This controversial and exciting film keeps you on the edge with its hard core images that sparks a rebellious attitude from the group’s gangster rap. This movie manages to portray the themes of fame, fortune, poverty, loyalty, betrayal, brotherhood, racism, and police brutality. Specifically, it is able to shine light on the issues of police brutality on African Americans that is still seen prominently today. At the climax in showing the Rodney King beating and L.A riot, this affects viewers immensely in connection to the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson riots, and the brutality seen across the country.
The title “Straight Outta Compton” came from the name of the group’s debut solo album. The film stars Jason Mitchell as Eazy E, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube, and Paul Giamatti as N.W.A’s manager Jerry Heller. The film, however, left little space for the other contributors to the group such as MC Ren played by Aldalis Hodge and DJ Yella who was played by Neil Brown, Jr. Instead the story is told in a linear structure of how the key contributors, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E started the group to when they went their own ways. The story starts when Dr. Dre convinces Eazy E to give up drug dealing and invest his money in music. From there they started Ruthless Record where Eazy E records his first song “Boyz n the Hood,” written by Ice Cube. The song became a hit and the manager Jerry Heller takes Eazy E and the group under his wing. The band started recording their first album “Straight Outta Compton” and in 1989 they went on tour. At this moment, they are harassed by the FBI due to their controversial and expletive song, “F*ck tha Police.” Conflicts started to arise within the group when Ice Cube and the other members are still not signed due to shady business between Eazy E and Heller. Eventually, the group breaks up and Ice Cube goes solo while Dr. Dre started his own record company called Death Row. After plenty of success from the key players, the group decides to reunite for another album. However, Eazy E finds outs that Heller is embezzling money from him and also became diagnosed with AIDS where he later passed away.
The cinematography plays a great role in capturing its true origin of where N.W.A started. The cinematographer Matthew Libatique who grew up in L.A manipulated aspects such as lighting and color to capture the film as a true period piece. For example, the LED street lights were replaced with the sodium vapor lights used back in the day. Libatique opted to shoot with RED DRAGON and instead used re-housed vintage Kowa anamorphic lenses (occasionally swapping with spherical Zeiss Super Speeds to compensate for close-focus issues inside the recording-studio scenes (Geffner, Living Large). The use of the anamorphic lenses creates a widescreen cinematic view, making the depth of field larger. In the studio scenes where the space is small, low lighting is used and key lighting is avoided. As most of the characters wear baseball hats where their faces are hidden, the key lighting is not added to enlighten their faces in order to make the setting and time seem more realistic. Instead, Libatique uses a natural light such as the lamps or ceiling light that was present to keep the mood intimate and natural.
There is a use of smoke in many of the night and club scenes to add a musty look as well as brown and gray colors. Muted colors offer a less intense look and correspond with gritty scenes in the movie.
The production designer Shane Valentino helps to create the mood through his use of colors. In the first scenes when the group just met, muted colors as well as blue and greens were used. The use of blue represents the Crip gang that Eazy E is associated with but also to create a calm mood. This contrast to the second half of the movie when the group breaks up and conflicts arise, the red color is used to create the dramatic effect. The red color is also associated with the Blood gang and Suge Knight who became a nuisance in the second half of the film. In the movie these blues and red are played with and can be used interchangeably. For example, in the scene where Ice Cube performs the N.W.A song “Gangster Gangster,” a cool color such as green and a hot color such as red are both used in the audience to create a complementary harmony.
The film starts in 1986. It opens with the epic scene of Eazy E trying to escape a crack house that was being raided by the police. It first starts with Eazy E walking up to the brown house in a cool manner. The scene is then superimposed to the interior of the house where a guy is cutting crack cocaine on the table (which tells you that it is a crack house). After a few business conversation and confrontation, tension arises when Eazy E had a gun pointed at him. Suddenly, the LAPD crashes into the house with a massive armored vehicle containing a battering ram. These scenes are shown fast, with the actors scrambling everywhere creating a panicking atmosphere. Eventually, Eazy E escapes and continues with his regular life, portraying what a normal night in the city of Compton is like. This first scene is a great example of how the film has been edited to portray the rugged lifestyle of the characters in Compton. The editor of the film is Billy Fox who worked well in the art of cutting.
The transitioning style mainly used in this movie is cuts, which is an instant change from one shot to the next. When the characters are scrambling and hiding their drugs and weapons, the image is cut continuously between each character to show what each character is hiding. For example: a woman is shown hiding the drugs in the ceiling, which cuts to the drug dealer in the bathroom hiding drugs in the faucet while another cut takes place showing a woman hiding the guns in a panel hidden in the refrigerator. Another transition that has been used is the fade and that is when the image fades to black. This transition has been used at the end of the first scene when Eazy E jumps over the house and the image slowly turns black.
Just like many of the scenes, an outside/ in pattern is used to show the transitions in time and space. “The more traditional pattern, outside/in editing, follows a logical sequence and concentrates on orienting us to the new setting” (Boggs, Petrie 198). Such example of this pattern takes us back to the first scene when Eazy E walks up to the crack house. At first the outside of the house is shown and with an objective shot, the camera follows Eazy E walking up to the house until he reaches inside. In this same scene, a continuous shot is used following his action and movements of him walking across the lawn. The outside/in pattern has also been used in clubs scenes where the outside of the club is shown first before the characters go inside.
Music plays a big role in this movie and is the most influential in setting the mood. Many of N.W.A. songs are played throughout the movie. This is influential because it allows the audiences to relate to the movie where a known song is played and creates the vibe that gangster rap creates. The vibe that gangster rap brings is rebellious, ferocious, and can be relatable for someone living in cities like Compton, Chiraq, Detroit or New York City. The music depicts thug life in south Los Angeles or what Ice Cube would call “reality rap.” The group raps about events and situations that they see every day in their lives, thus describing events of crime, violence, and police brutality. The music played in the movie includes: “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A, “Flash Light” by Parliament, “We Want Eazy” by Eazy-E, “Gangsta Gangsta” by N.W.A, “(Not Just) Knee Deep” by Funkadelic, “Boyz-n-the-Hood” by Eazy-E, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayers Ubiquity, “Dopeman (Remix)” by N.W.A, “Fuck tha Police” by N.W.A, “Express Yourself” by N.W.A, “Weak at the Knees” by Steve Arrington’s, “Quiet on tha Set” by N.W.A, “8 Ball (Remix)” by N.W.A, “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” by Ice Cube, “Real Niggaz” by N.W.A, “No Vaseline” by Ice Cube, and “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg.
Listening to these songs incites a revolutionary feeling where you want to speak up or do something about the issues that takes place. In the scene where the group performs at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit Michigan, the Detroit Police Department shows up and warns the group that they cannot perform their song, “F*ck the police.” Remarkably, the group performs the song anyways, exercising their right to free speech and a riot breaks out resulting in the group’s arrest. This component is important to the film and the story of N.W.A because the song gave the group a lot of publicity and reflects their discontent with white authority. This major theme of racism and police brutality allows the audience to connect to the anger and mood that the group felt at the time.
The film, “Straight Outta Compton” is one of the best biopic I have seen in years. Although controversial, it incorporated the astonishing journey of mainly Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy E from being teenage boys living in Compton to legends. The movie is authentic in the sense that the events were chronological and mostly accurate. However, some inaccuracies included the portrayal of MC Ren and DJ Yella where they were not shown as major contributors to the group. Also, in the stage performance that took place in Detroit, Michigan, LED PAR stage lights were used on stage when such technology did not exist at that time. Another inaccuracy included the group’s wardrobe where thebaseball caps and jerseys worn had Majestic Athletic logos and the Major League Baseball logo on them when such sponsors have not supplied that clothing in the 80s.
The movie did not lack credibility, however, when music artist like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg have been portrayed in the film. Also, it depicted certain events such as the L.A riots that took place at the time. Although, on production was producers like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E’S widow Tomica Woods-Wright to reinforce the events.
The movie was successful in gaining recognition and positive reviews where it was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times felt that the film attempted to take on more storylines than it could handle, also criticizing how bloated it becomes towards the end.
In my opinion, the producers and actors did a great job in portraying the story of N.W.A. Specifically, the right story was told in a way that shows both negative and positive aspects of the group. Also, the movie was able to shine light and relate to the issues that are happening today such as police brutality and racial discrimination.