A compelling but formulaic biopic that lacks the artistic vitality of its subjects.
Straight Outta Compton
When N.W.A. glitched the mainstream radio system with their 1988 breakout album Straight Outta Compton, the five upstarts in black—Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella—branded their fresh, documentary-style take on hip-hop as “reality rap.” They took the country on a sonic tour through Compton, and while the group found mega success, wider audiences weren’t comfortable associating the grisly street stories they heard on the record with their own “reality.” They couldn’t stomach that. Hence, “reality rap” never caught on; the more ostracizing term “gangsta rap” sat better with the mainstream media, as it allowed white audiences to keep “gangstas” like N.W.A. at arms length.
F. Gary Gray reintroduces us to N.W.A. on an intimate level with his music-fueled biopic Straight Outta Compton, chronicling the group’s rise to prominence, their eventual split, and the death of ringleader Eazy-E. Full of good performances by actors who each bear an eye-popping resemblance to their real-life counterparts, the movie works—most of the time. Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff at times feel too handcuffed to the group’s well-documented history, breaking up the rhythm of the story to check off a minor, well-documented detail of the journey, no matter how emotionally irrelevant it may be. As a result, the film lacks the same unbridled artistic vitality and brashness its subjects wore on their chests as they roared “Fuck Tha Police” in front of crowds of thousands.
Prioritizing narrative flow and historical accuracy is a challenge that comes with every biopic, but Gray had added pressure; two of the film’s producers are Dr. Dre and Ice Cube themselves. Their involvement is a blessing in that the movie’s first half, focusing on the group’s humble beginnings in Compton, feels alive and authentic. It starts with a young Ice Cube (played by his doppelganger son O’Shea Jackson) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins, another dead-ringer) dropping hard beats and rhymes on a small club crowd who’d never heard anything realer. Determined to unleash their musical vision on a larger audience (larger than their local club, anyway), they convince drug dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to finance their dreams. They start up an indie record label called Ruthless Records and hop in the studio, cutting the landmark record the movie’s named after.
Watching the creation of the group’s classic records come to life on-screen is an unfettered joy as a fan. An early scene sees Eazy hop his “non-rapping ass” into the booth as he struggles to find the beat on the Cube-penned “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” squealing the lyrics until Dre cuts him off from the other side of the glass, laughing. After a quick, playful trash-talk exchange, Dre offers some pointed advice, pleading with Eazy to relax and spit the lyrics like he means it, as if he was literally cruisin’ down the street in his ’64. The camaraderie between the actors feels genuine as they jam out in the studio, and there’s not much more you could want than that. Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. play MC Ren and DJ Yella, respectively, but they’re essentially non-entities in the story. It’s tough to say, but it feels like their C-character status in the film is informed by the public’s perception of the group rather than their value as human beings in the five-way friendship.
When the group hits the stage to perform their protest anthems in front of sold-out arenas, the movie flirts with greatness. A reenactment of the group’s performance of “Fuck Tha Police” at Joe Louis arena in Detroit brings the house down. Before they can finish the song, Detroit police storm the stage and shove the rappers into a van in handcuffs. It’s an exhilarating scene and a poignant one, once it dawns on you that the level of police harassment and brutality hasn’t diminished a bit since N.W.A. lit a fire under the country’s ass back in the early ’90s.
The movie starts to stumble in its second half, in which the rappers’ tight bond starts to crumble under the weight of contract negotiations and management disputes. These showbiz maneuverings were, in fact, what led to the group’s split (and their infamous volley of dis tracks), but in detailing these dealings the film loses a lot of the electricity it generates in the first act. Fan service moments like Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg conceiving “Nuthin But a G Thang” and 2Pac nodding his head to the piano-driven “California Love” beat for the first time are amusing and full of nostalgia, but they stick out like sore thumbs and interfere with the larger emotional arc.
Eazy-E emerges as the film’s most layered character, with most of the story’s drama emanating from his mentor-student (master-slave?) relationship with the group’s longtime manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the first big supporter of the group who went on to reveal his true stripes as a cunning manipulator (“You’re smarter than this, Eazy!” he repeats) and shameless scam artist (“That’s how business works!”). Mitchell has the most challenging role of all, as our allegiance to Eazy shifts and sways several times throughout the movie. Eazy made some terrible mistakes and had a rabid ego, but was also a visionary and a symbol of strength, especially when he faced death at the hands of AIDS in 1995. Mitchell captures all of the colors of Eazy’s legacy, and there isn’t much more you could ask of him than that.
It’s freaky how much Jackson looks like his dad. Ice Cube is arguably the most lovable/toughest rapper of all time, and Jackson nails that dichotomy with that signature furrowed brow and big, toothy grin. Hawkins nails Dre’s whole “silent rage” thing, but the writers fail him in that they don’t explore the beauty of Dre’s musical thought process, something that’s earned the headphone mogul a reputation as being one of the most gifted music producers in history. With Dre’s deep involvement in the movie’s production, one would hope for a more penetrating insight into the way his mind works, artistically.
Influential and widely revered as they were, the N.W.A. crew weren’t exactly beacons of morality back then, and Gray mostly doesn’t shy away from that fact. Misogyny and violence were significant pieces of the group’s identity, but the movie is selective in its reflection of these less flattering characteristics. The women in the film are universally objectified, with bare, gyrating female bodies populating the screen on the regular. The party scenes look like booty-tastic ’90s rap videos, and rightfully so; this is an example of Gray staying true to the times and the mentality of the group. Like it or not, this is what the hip-hop scene looked like back then. There’s no mention of Dre’s history of violence against women, however, which, unfortunately, makes the story feel less complete.