Straight Outta Compton

When I saw the trailer for Straight Outta Compton I knew that the film would represent a seminal moment in The Culture. And by The Culture, I mean hip-hop culture, Black culture, pop culture. History has a funny way of changing people’s perception, and I’m glad that my personal recollections of the group NWA informed my perception of the film. For those of you who don’t know, NWA (Niggas With Attitude) ushered in the so-called “gangsta rap” era, introducing us to rap luminaries Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. MC Ren and DJ Yella rounded out the group, a collective who expressed a raw, unabashed musical style that hadn’t been heard before. Straight Outta Compton was their debut album, and the film borrows that title as both a reference point and descriptor for its member’s origins. My discussion of the film will be twofold, as I’ll address its cinematic merits first, followed by its significance within The Culture.

Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Friday) has crafted a superior biopic. The film was as informative as it was entertaining, expertly incorporating the music that influenced the legendary group’s sound, as well as new music (Dr. Dre’s Compton soundtrack). Gray opens the movie by painting a picture of Reagan-era Los Angeles while introducing the audience to NWA’s charismatic front man Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Ideally the first few moments of a film will capture your attention, and the opening scene set the tone in its depiction of Eazy narrowly escaping a botched drug deal. I was astounded at the images of a militarized police department, as they drove a battering ram through the front of a “trap” house, demolishing it and nearly killing its occupants. Gray shows us the environment that birthed the group, all the while making the obvious parallel between the LAPD’s tactics and what we’ve seen recently around the country regarding the unrest surrounding young Black men and women and the various police departments who brutalize them.

While Eazy contemplates a life beyond slanging dope, Ice Cube cultivates ferocity on the microphone, penning rhymes in a composition book he carries daily. Meanwhile Dr. Dre moonlights as a deejay at a local nightspot while trying to support a young family despite still living at home with his mother. His musical influences are made of some of the very best soul, funk, and rhythm & blues ever recorded – a subtle reminder that without sampling rap music wouldn’t be what it is today. NWA was formed partly by happenstance, partly by design. Dre was the visionary who crafted the sound, Cube wrote the lyrics, and Eazy had the voice. Eazy was no rapper, and one memorable scene showed how it took a few tries for him to perfect his style and unique cadence. However, their star power was undeniable, and eventually their brand of self-described reality rap propelled them to stardom.

Inevitably the group fell victim to dissension, as manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, San Andreas) drove a wedge between Eazy and the others by withholding royalties from Ice Cube when he failed to equitably account for the significant writing Cube had done for the group. Cube left the group with Dre eventually following suit, and when NWA unofficially disbanded, things were never quite the same. The members had somewhat mended fences before Eazy’s untimely death from AIDS, but by then it was the end of an era.

The film is almost too grand to effectively summarize, but a few scenes captured the immense cultural impact NWA had on America and on music as a whole. Freedom of speech was essential to the group’s image, as they faced criticism at every turn. Their adoration from fans was met with equal parts disdain from law enforcement, as “Fuck the Police” was emblematic of the frustration of young Black men across America. Gray showed how the Rodney King verdict and subsequent L.A. riots affected the community, validating the song and the maverick spirit that created it.

One aspect of NWA’s criticism that was hinted at but never fleshed out, was the misogynistic nature of their lyrics. Yes, the violent anti-law enforcement lyrics drew ire, but so did the prolific barrage of lyrics that seemed to degrade women. The film portrayed the group as heroes (or anti-heroes, at the least), and I suppose that is to be expected since Cube and Dre have production credits here. I won’t say the portrayal was sanitized, but of course some things were omitted. However, I did enjoy the balanced humanization of the group, particularly a scene in which Dre is comforted after the death of his brother, and another towards the end as they grapple with Eazy’s impending death.

F. Gary Gray brilliantly captured the group’s inception and pivotal musical moments in the recording studio. The performances were above reproach. O’shea Jackson Jr. bears an uncanny resemblance to his famous father, from voice inflection to mannerisms. Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) infused their roles with authenticity and surprising vulnerability. Mitchell particularly showed a different side of Eazy, as he ruefully realizes that Cube and Dre’s respective stars have eclipsed his own. A few things were glossed over, in my opinion – like the extent to which Eazy fell out with the rest of the group. I remember the diss tracks, and I don’t think they made peace as easily as the film indicated. Nevertheless, this is a small quibble. The movie is a must see for anyone that loves The Culture. I got chills watching Ice Cube in the booth and when I heard him rhyming over Steve Arrington’s “Weak At The Knees” instrumental in an early scene. Some shit you just have to see, period. Not perfect, but pretty close. Grade: A.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Let me begin with the disclaimer that we over here at The Fast Lane do not advocate drug use.  That being said, it’s very clear that A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas was meant to be viewed under the influence.  If you’re sober when watching (as I was), chances are you’ll be more exasperated than amused.  That’s not to say that there weren’t a few laughs, but it was about as stupid as I expected it to be.  This movie is for stoners and 13 year old boys.  Everyone else – watch at your own risk.

This was one of those movies that didn’t really need to be in 3D – but hey, whatever.  When we pick up with the cannabis-loving compadres, it’s obvious that Harold (John Cho, Flash Forward) and Kumar’s (Kal Penn) bromance has tapered off.  Harold is married and Kumar is…well, getting high every waking moment.  His girlfriend has recently dumped him, and he’s been wallowing for months.  When she tells him that she’s pregnant, he’s too high to respond like an adult.  Harold is the exact opposite.  He’s very stable and settled, and his life is quiet and simple, at least until his father-in-law shows up for Christmas.  Humorously portrayed by that menacing dude from the Tarantino movies, this guy is incredibly hard to please.  Upon his arrival he trashes Harold’s Christmas tree because it’s fake.  He brought his own fir tree that he’d grown for 8 years to decorate instead.  While Harold’s wife and father-in-law attend Midnight Mass he promises to decorate the tree.  The fact that his father-in-law grew the tree for 8 years should let you know how crazy he is about Christmas; so decorating the tree is a really big deal.  Harold hopes that if he does this successfully he can finally win the guy over.

Harold and Kumar have been estranged, because Harold thinks that whenever Kumar and weed are around things go tragically wrong.  This is borne out when Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep with a Christmas package for Harold that was delivered to his apartment.  They open it and see it contains a jumbo-sized joint.  Harold wants no parts of it, but Kumar sparks the spliff before he can stop him.  In the first of a series of truly ridiculous mishaps, the joint ends up setting the Christmas tree on fire.  Now Harold is tasked with replacing the tree before his wife and father-in-law return at 2:00 AM.  As soon as Kumar reappears, things start to go wrong – which confirms Harold’s recent exclusion of his old friend.

While they’ve lost touch they have each made new friends, though these new buddies aren’t the same.  Harold’s pal is Todd, played by the always hilarious Tom Lemmon (I Love You Man, Reno 911).  Kumar’s buddy is Adrian, who has convinced Kumar to tag along at a party in the city where he hopes to smang a girl he met online who claims to be a virgin.  Exactly. How much more juvenile can we get?  Harold realizes he could get another Christmas tree from the house party, while Adrian tries to score.  What transpires for the movie’s duration is a hodgepodge of misadventure as Harold and Kumar end up fighting off mobsters and dancing onstage with the strangely omnipresent Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), among other things.  All in a mad quest to get a perfect tree on Christmas Eve.

I can’t be mad, and I can’t say that I wasted an hour and forty minutes of my life.  The movie was exactly what I thought it would be.  It never took itself seriously, and shame on me for expecting it to.  Gratuitous, pointless 3D effects were peppered throughout, as well as obvious 3D references in the dialogue.  There were lots of boobs and drugs.  Neil Patrick Harris was funny as always, poking fun at his sexual orientation and generally looking like he was having a good time.  I didn’t have high expectations (no pun intended) to begin with, but I still found the movie a little disappointing.  Just because it’s a stoner movie doesn’t mean that you can just throw anything against the wall and hope it sticks.  Smarter, funnier stoner movies have been done, such as Pineapple Express and the Friday movies.  Just wait for this one to come out on DVD.  That way it’s cheaper, and when you get the munchies – it’s a short walk to the kitchen.

This article first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.