Like a hip-hop song, this is a 140-minute celebration of masculinity and capitalism, set to an insistent rhythm and rife with earworm hooks.
Straight Outta Compton isn’t simply a biopic covering the long career arc of gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. and its members. Like a prototypical hip-hop song, this is a two-and-a-half hour celebration of masculinity and capitalism, set to an insistent rhythm and rife with earworm hooks. Rather than a wiry bit of a keyboard or a breakbeat sampled from a ‘70s funk or soul LP, this F. Gary Gray-directed picture relies on the familiar tropes of modern cinema.
The first third of the movie is paced as both the beginning of a rags to riches story and like the origin story of a superhero collective à la The Avengers. The three principal members of N.W.A. – Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., aka the real Ice Cube’s eldest son) and Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) – are each put in the spotlight, allowing us to see their struggles as young black men living in South Central L.A. striving for something beyond their station. Into the fray comes a supervillain of sorts: a hunched over, easily angered music manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who sees the talent in these young rappers and seeks to squeeze every last dime he can from them, under the guise of having their best interests at hand.
If you’re at all familiar with the story of the group – the billion dollar career paths of Dre and Cube and the untimely death of Eazy E – there’s nothing at all in here that will surprise you. Gray and the screenwriters hit all the highlights: N.W.A. getting arrested in Detroit, Cube leaving the group, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, The Chronic, the Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots, Suge Knight’s reign of terror and the arrival of 2Pac and Snoop Dogg into the mix. They don’t linger too long on any one scene or subject in their hurry to get to the closing credits montage that highlights Dre’s billion dollar Beats Music deal and Cube’s huge movie career.
When the film does slow down, it’s usually in the service of emphasizing how tough yet tender-hearted these men are. Dre is capable of knocking dudes out with one punch but is himself flattened by the death of his younger brother. Cube, on the other hand, is a devoted family man who is still willing to destroy the office of Priority Records CEO Bryan Turner with a baseball bat to ensure that he gets paid what he’s owed. And when all four of the members of N.W.A. arrive at Eazy-E’s hospital bed, it’s to put on a brave face and shed tears over their fallen hero.
The intent of Straight Outta Compton is also to push viewers past the darker corners of this group’s history. Plenty of young women appear on the screen in various states of undress for the members of N.W.A. to play with and discard. The only one given a name is brusquely shoved out the door after her boyfriend comes calling. (Naturally, her name is Felicia, allowing for a quick Friday call back.) The cloud hanging over these scenes is the knowledge that it was Eazy’s promiscuity that led to his contracting HIV, something that comes up towards the end when the young rapper is in the hospital. As you would rightfully guess, there’s no mention of Yella’s post-hip-hop career in the porn industry and, likewise, no discussion of Dre’s penchant for punching women who disrespect him.
This isn’t surprising. No one in the group would have signed off on this project if they did try to shine a light on those contradictions or those distressing truths. This is a buffed and polished remembrance of the rise of gangsta rap and G-Funk in the world of popular culture, shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique with the glossy hues of a ‘90s music video. For those hagiographic purposes, Straight Outta Compton succeeds mightily. The scenes of the group performing on stage are as alive as anything, even if the men on screen are lip syncing to the original versions. And the sequence that sees N.W.A. get brutally harassed and humiliated by the L.A.P.D., leading them to record the still-electrifying “Fuck Tha Police,” thrills.
In their attempts to edit the history books for their own ends, however, Cube, Dre and the gang behind this film wind up skimming past the hard truths that inspired their best work as a group so as to more quickly get us to the point where they were knocking boots with groupies and cashing $75,000 checks. That may be fun for an evening’s entertainment, but it’s only telling half the story.