Review: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, An Artful And Entertaining Musical Biopic
"You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge." So begins the title track of NWA's seminal 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, a hip-hop landmark that almost single-handedly changed the direction of the art form. The making of this album, the experiences of its creators, and the social and political circumstances that served as a Petri dish for the genesis of this influential work, are given visceral dramatic force in F. Gary Gray's artful and entertaining biopic Straight Outta Compton.
NWA's ethos was all about confrontation and brash, swaggering braggadocio, from their name - which stood for "Niggaz Wit Attitudes" - to the subject matter of their songs, which vividly and cinematically described life in the drug and crime-ridden streets of Compton, California, where violent death seemingly lurked around every corner, and the police served as a domestic occupying army. "I'm a journalist just like you," NWA's chief lyricist Ice Cube (played by O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Cube's real life son) tells a clueless, superficial interviewer at one point in the film.
This statement succinctly expresses what made Straight Outta Compton sound so vital, visceral, almost revolutionary, not to mention deeply frightening to many observers, especially many white folks and law enforcement. This was the soundtrack to insurrection, the cri de coeur of oppressed people living in severely economically depressed circumstances, where practically the only prosperous people around were the local drug dealers. Chuck D of Public Enemy famously called rap music "Black America's CNN," and NWA most certainly took this sentiment to heart.
Parents were especially horrified to learn that this was what their kids were listening to. If the one fleeting reference to masturbation on one track of Prince's Purple Rain caused enough outrage to engender Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center, then surely the entirety of the Straight Outta Compton album induced heart attacks. Appropriately, the typography of the film's title on screen and on posters is identical to those of the parental advisory stickers adopted by the music industry as a result of congressional legislation proposed by the PMRC.
The film clearly understands the value of NWA's art in terms of its reportage. It pertinently points out that while the mass media called NWA's music "gangsta rap," that's not what they themselves called it. Instead, their term for it was "reality rap." In this way, the film serves the important revisionist service of revealing the appellation of "gangsta rap" for the flippant, trivializing, and stereotyping term it is. The fact that rappers later embraced the "gangsta" label (including the members of NWA themselves) doesn't mitigate the term's descriptive inadequacy and its misunderstanding of this music.
Besides the music - which is beautifully detailed in many scenes and a few montage sequences - the most powerful scenes of the film depict the notoriously draconian methods the LAPD used to control ordinary citizens, especially those in poor black neighborhoods like Compton. In our current times, when people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland have become household names for the most tragic reasons, the scenes showing how the police treated those under their control will resonate deeply with many viewers for obvious reasons.
These issues with the police, of course, impacted the members of NWA personally. One example of this occurs in the film's opening pre-credits sequence where, in a scene that recalls Gray's previous films Set It Off and The Italian Job, neighborhood drug dealer Eric "Eazy-E" Wright (Jason Mitchell), after a tense stand-off with some clients, runs to escape a police raid that includes a battering ram, which knocks a woman into a wall. (This use of military grade weaponry by local police departments, of course, was a major issue in the case of Ferguson, Missouri.)
Another example is a powerful scene in which, outside of the recording studio where NWA are laying down the tracks for Straight Outta Compton, they are harassed and made to lay down on the ground by cops (led by a black officer) who assume they are gangbangers. The efforts of their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) just barely gets them out of this mess. The police scoff derisively at the very notion that these black kids are "artists," as Heller refers to them.
As the film tells it, NWA defiantly sets out to prove those cops wrong by recording their most incendiary track, "Fuck Tha Police." This searing clarion call, which hasn't aged one iota in the nearly 30 years since its creation, was what put them on the FBI's radar and truly made them public enemy number one in the eyes of law enforcement. This culminates in another thrilling scene, at a Detroit concert where NWA defiantly violates the local cops' edict against doing the song. This leads to the group getting arrested and audience members rioting.
However, it must also be acknowledged that along with all this bold truthfulness, and fearlessly telling it like it is, there existed a great deal of casual misogyny, and homophobia as well. As much as the album still holds up - especially Ice Cube and Eazy-E's charisma and verbal dexterity, as well as Dr. Dre's consummate producing skills, already evident this early in his career - this misogyny is an inextricable element in the fabric of NWA's worldview.
Straight Outta Compton admirably strives to be a warts-and-all portrait of its subjects, which doesn't shy away from their personal failings, such as Eazy-E's collusion with Jerry Heller to cheat the rest of the group (especially Ice Cube) of their rightful earnings, as well as NWA's tendency to resort to violence as a way to resolve issues. Unfortunately, this forthrightness doesn't extend to depicting the ways they treated women. The women in the lives of the group are mostly marginalized and kept on the sidelines, from the anonymous groupies populating hotel rooms and beach parties, to Dre's angry wife leaving him, and Eazy-E's widow standing by his side as he's dying from AIDS.
Sometimes the misogyny is even played for laughs, as in one scene when an armed angry boyfriend storms NWA's hotel room party searching for his paramour. The failure to effectively critique or interrogate NWA's misogyny - or worse, its apparent disinterest in doing so - is Straight Outta Compton's biggest weakness. In this context, the omission of Dr. Dre's assault against TV host Dee Barnes is especially egregious, and is indicative of the tendency toward hagiography which often afflicts biopics, and which Straight Outta Compton is by no means immune to.
The structure and stylistic contours of Straight Outta Compton mostly follow that of the standard biopic. In a very straightforward, linear fashion it goes through all the main points of the NWA historical timeline: Eazy-E meeting with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and using his drug money to start their record label, Ruthless; their meeting with Jerry Heller and distribution deal with Priority Records, whose biggest act up to then was the California Raisins; the recording of their first single "Boyz-n-the-Hood" (with Eazy-E on vocals) and the subsequent full-length album Straight Outta Compton; their rapid rise and exploding popularity; their harassment by the FBI as a result of "Fuck Tha Police"; their dissolution as Ice Cube and then Dr. Dre leave the group over money issues; the firing of Heller and a reconciliation and planned reunion which is cut short by Eazy-E's death from AIDS.
So don't look for Straight Outta Compton to reinvent the biopic wheel. The beauty of the film lies is in its lovingly recreated details, and how evocatively it paints the picture of the time period in which it is set. F. Gary Gray's spirited, lively direction, Matthew Libatique's wonderfully burnished and textured cinematography which nicely captures both the grit and glamour of NWA's story, and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff's meticulous screenplay help to create a compelling and skillfully crafted work.
The main actors, all relative newcomers, are instrumental in bringing this vital tale to vivid life. O'Shea Jackson, Jr., making his screen debut as Ice Cube, uncannily evokes his father's charisma, gestures, and demeanor. But this is no mere impersonation; Jackson fully embodies the role and demonstrates real talent that will augur well in future roles. Corey Hawkins (as Andre "Dr. Dre" Young) and Aldis Hodge (as Lorenzo "MC Ren" Patterson) are also fine in their roles, but the biggest impression is made by Jason Mitchell's excellent turn as Eric "Eazy-E" Wright. Mitchell near-perfectly captures the swagger and supreme Napoleon-esque confidence that made up for Wright's diminutive stature. He also affectingly yet subtly nails the notes that marked Eazy-E's tragic succumbing to the HIV virus.
Straight Outta Compton, in the end, is far more than merely the story of a rap group. It presents a vibrant portrait of a time and a place, and events that could very well have happened yesterday. Police brutality, poverty, friendship, betrayal, music, and art come together in an indelibly memorable way in this essential movie.
Straight Outta Compton opens in theaters on August 14.
Straight Outta Compton
- F. Gary Gray
- Jonathan Herman (screenplay)
- Andrea Berloff (screenplay)
- S. Leigh Savidge (story)
- Alan Wenkus (story)
- Andrea Berloff (story)
- O'Shea Jackson Jr.
- Corey Hawkins
- Jason Mitchell
- Neil Brown Jr.