There is built-in urgency to Straight Outta Compton, the new biopic about NWA and produced by its key members, and it has little to do with hip-hop. Between Ferguson and the Bernie Sanders rally last week, there has been a difficult, necessary national discussion over institutional racism, and the tense relationship between police and young black Americans. That tension partially defines Straight Outta Compton, and despite being set twenty years ago, some scenes eerily feel like the present. That urgency, coupled with F. Gary Gray’s energetic direction and terrific performances, makes for spirited entertainment, at least until the story tilts toward easy platitudes and hero-worship.
Gray begins with vignettes for Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s actual son). While Dre and Cube collaborate as a DJ and MC, respectively, E is a small-time drug dealer with a canny sense of human nature. Dre performs R&B at a local South Central club, complete with cheesy costumes, yet he wants to play hardcore “Reality Rap,” to the chagrin of the club owner. Dre convinces E to invest his drug money into a recording session, and they record “Boys in the Hood” with E as a reluctant vocalist (there’s a funny scene is where Dre coaches E to follow the beat). The single catches the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who creates Ruthless Records alongside E. Imperfect record contract now in tow, NWA records “Straight Outta Compton” and reaches stardom/notoriety with the subsequent tour (the performance footage is sensational). Dre and Cube are suspicious of Heller’s relationship with E, as they should be, so the group starts to unravel.
The movie’s first moments strike a nervy balance the natural talent of NWA’s members and the troubled community where they live. There is a strange, affecting early scene where Cube sits on a school bus, and a member of The Bloods steps inside it to give an impromptu “stay in school” speech while brandishing a pistol. Moments like this are key to Straight Outta Compton’s greatest success, which is putting its audience – even a middle class white man like me – into NWA’s mindset. We completely understand why Cube wrote “Fuck Tha Police,” and why he performed the song even after Detroit Police Officers threatened him not to do it. While Cube is a brilliant lyricist and Dre is a brilliant beat-maker, E serves as the business and spiritual core of the group (the group’s other members have more modest screen time). Gray includes glimmers of the problems the group would face – legally and financially – and soon the thrill of creativity gives way to dour responsibility.
Parts of Straight Outta Compton are like a highlight reel of early gangsta rap. There are cameo appearances by Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac (Marcc Rose); characters make passing references to important events (e.g. E’s White House visit) as if they’re checking off a list. The reason for this inclusive approach to screenwriting is obvious: Cube and Dre want to rewrite history for a modern audience, exaggerating the truth and lying by omission. The film includes some reference to the women in the lives of its characters – Dre’s mom (Lisa Renee Pitts) is a commanding presence – except Gray clearly prefers gangsta posturing, comic episodes, and brotherly love. The point is that NWA were young men, full of mistakes, and a more honest portrayal would also consider that they were eventually more than that, too.
Ironically, Straight Outta Compton would be a stronger film with a “warts and all” approach: the screenwriters are perfectly content to show the violent side of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and his entourage, yet completely gloss over Dr. Dre brutally beating Dee Barnes and a history of misogyny. In fact, the ugliest scene in Straight Outta Compton excuses NWA’s casual misogyny with an easy “boys will be boys” punchline, one that’s all the more disturbing since it involves automatic weapons. Gray could have gone for a laugh and played the scene with more sympathy toward women, yet that would get in the way of gangsta ethos. E’s promiscuity and relationship with Jerry gets more depth and screen time, and even that is marred by clichéd dialogue that quite literally repeats itself. All the actors, especially Hawkins, accomplish the tricky task of embodying the characters without impersonating them, and their hard work is thankless since Cube and Dre are too close to this project for its own good.
Straight Outta Compton includes with the untimely death of Eazy E, as well as Dre and Cube’s ascension from rappers to moguls. Gray, who cut his teeth directing Cube in Friday and “Today Was a Good Day,” ends with a curious non-fiction note: there are flash-forwards to actual footage of Dre and Cube, including their film/music work and Dre’s deal with Apple. The transition is jarring because Straight Outta Compton starts with a yearning for expression and acknowledged humanity, and ends with a vulgar display of, well, global dominance. Some critics dismiss Straight Outta Compton as hagiography, and while I see what they mean, that’s a little too simple. The film is an intense slice of life portrayal, as well as a character-driven account of the creative process. It may have left me wanting more, but that’s only because, whether it’s through a throwaway line or reaction shot, the young cast would actually do better by the hip-hop stars who are perhaps nervous about how the public might perceive them.