“Straight Outta Compton,” which opens Fridays in theaters, tells the story of rap group N.W.A (N——z With Attitude) beginning in the mid 1980s, when N.W.A. was just a group of black teenagers that grappled with parents, police, and violence in Compton, California.
The biopic follows Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren and the music that reflected their lives on the streets of Compton, 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.
As the group gets bigger, they attract the attention of Jewish music manager Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti (in an alarmingly white wig).
Predictably, the music executive ends up stealing money from his downtrodden clients. The conflict eventually results in Ice Cube’s departure from the group to start his own career, effectively breaking up N.W.A for good.
With a good score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, most critics agree that “Straight Outta Compton” is a decent watch, which works given the current climate of outrage against police brutality against young black men and women.
However, most critics of the movie gloss over the anti-Semitic undertones that come from a Jewish villain. Only the Wall Street Journal review by Joe Morgenstern : “Anti-Semitism only comes up openly because Heller is outraged by Ice Cube’s attacks on him.”
In Ice Cube’s song “Vaseline” he raps, “It’s a case of divide and conquer/ cuz you let a Jew break up my crew” and later, “Cuz you can’t be in the N—-a 4 Life crew/with a white Jew tellin you what to do.”
No other review mentions anti-Semitism, and the vast majority don’t mention Heller’s background at all.
Some, like the New York Times, praise Giamatti’s performance. In his review, Manohla Dargis wrote: “Jerry Heller… an avuncular weasel who becomes every white hustler who has ever skimmed the top off black talent. For a while, the curious, underexplored relationship between Eazy and Heller threatens to overwhelm the movie, partly because Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Giamatti consistently out-act the rest of the performers.”
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan asked, “How do you handle potential litigious characters like… controversial ex-N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, who has already stated that on opening day ‘I will be there in the front row with my lawyer.’”
However, Turan acknowledged “the film attempts to portray Heller evenhandedly, even including a scene where he stands up for N.W.A. to hostile police.”
Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich gave Giamatti his most positive review, writing that he “is sometimes a sputtering showboat, but he doesn’t steal focus from the film’s true stars; later, emotional scenes between Heller and Eazy-E are among the film’s strongest.”
Variety’s review by Scott Foundas was one of the few that addressed Heller’s Jewishness, read: “But while Heller may be the prototypical wolf in Jewish cowboy couture, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is loath to pass rash judgments on its characters, whose motivations Gray and the writers strive to understand even when their actions verge on the monstrous.”
All in all, the movie seems to accomplish its main goal: to give a strong and honest portrayal of the rise and fall of one hip hop’s early icons. It’s just too bad that has to come at a price.
“Straight Outta Compton” came out August 14, and Thursday night made $4.96 million. Projections estimate a taking of over $40 million for the opening weekend.