N.W.A. was at the pinnacle of gangsta rap at the end of the 1980s when their debut studio project ‘Straight Outta Compton’ debuted in the midst of American cultural growing pains; not only were racism and police brutality creeping back into the public consciousness, but hip-hop culture, at the tail end of its infancy, was was being put through the ringer by cultural watchdogs and older music fans alike.
No one was taking it seriously, until groups like N.W.A. grabbed some necks and forced faces into the cesspool. Cut to 27 years later, and the world is still in disarray over Black bodies dead from police violence and fierce societal indifference; and director F. Gary Gray and producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tomica Woods-Wright (widow of group leader Eazy-E) are here to bring that compelling story to the screen.
N.W.A. and its members (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, MC Ren) were a bold, complicated group who had their fair share of bold, complicated problems that I was hoping to see thoughtfully aired out or at least acknowledged, but the film isn’t quite brave enough to pinch at those nerves. As far as Hollywood biopics go, Straight Outta Compton glosses over its fair share of skeletons in our boys’ closets (more on that later), and the further we get into the story, the more it devolves into generic biopic treacle; but for its first hour and change, Straight Outta Compton paints a sweeping, funny(!), and gripping portrait unlike any music pic I’ve seen since Ray. Expect a spike in N.W.A. sales this weekend.
The film opens at the tail end of the 1980s, where we find each member coasting in their own way; Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) is slinging drugs and running from battering rams; Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is a music nerd lost in his record collection and spinning tracks for a shady nightclub with his pal Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.); O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (the real life O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a lyricist whose words tumble into notebooks on school buses. Along with Wright’s friend Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge), the five tap into each other’s talents as musicians and businessmen, eventually bringing on Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) as their manager, and decide to make a real go at hip-hop.
Compton covers all the sweet spots that die-hard fans will recognize; the songs, the concerts, the excess of girls and drugs, and even more sensitive spots like the police interference during concerts, the financial swindling on the parts of Wright and Heller, the diss tracks tossed back and forth after their initial breakup, and so on. In fact, they even go through the beginning and end of Dre’s career at Death Row Records with Suge Knight (complete with Snoop Dogg and Tupac cameos) and Wright’s tragic death via AIDS in 1995.
The level of detail is balanced by Gray’s fast-paced direction, with events coming and going in the blink of an eye; they even go meta with a scene of Cube writing the screenplay for Friday. As much ground as the film covers, Compton still picks and chooses what it wants to wax nostalgic about; one of the biggest concerns was the omission of Dr. Dre’s violent past with women, most notably rapper Dee Barnes, which doesn’t quite gel with the sanitized anti-social yet immensely gifted genius portrayal that Hawkins is going for; not to mention N.W.A.’s overall history of misogyny. This doesn’t come as a surprise, seeing as how Dre and Cube produced this flick, so of course they’d want to gloss over the uglier parts of their come up, but the fact that it gets no mention in the film proper continues to clash with the group’s otherwise deserved lionization. After the first hour, the film is so determined to crowbar in as many events as it can that things feel a bit rushed and bloated by the end, especially because the ending drops out of the damn sky.
Compton does take the time to show that in their early days, none of them were exactly the best guys, but the movie doesn’t seem to think that’s too bad of a thing because reasons. To the film’s credit, the women who do show face, most notably Dre’s mother and Woods-Wright, step out and prove that they were important support pillars in the lives of N.W.A. Even with the glaring historical omissions and the bloated second half, Gray’s fast direction and the cast make what we do see a breathless ride through a hard-living career. The group proper is fantastic, with Mitchell’s sly calculating little scrapper of an Eazy-E and O’Shea’s father/son chameleon act as immediate standouts; you can thank their chemistry for dusting tons of unexpected laughs throughout. Giamatti walks the line between sleazeball and sad sack as Heller. Keith Stanfield and Marcc Rose are uncannily spot-on as Snoop Dogg and Tupac, respectively, and R. Marcus Taylor brings a silent cartoon mobster vibe to Suge Knight that becomes unintentionally hilarious when stacked next to Dre’s awkward good-boy routine.
Like N.W.A. themselves, its propensity to reflect on the past but brush aside or flat out ignore the bad stuff, prevents Straight Outta Compton from being a perfect film; and while it’s rightfully being taken to task for ignoring the sometimes lethal misogyny that the group reveled in and overstuffing its story to hell in the process, it’s still a fitting tribute to one of hip-hop’s foundational groups and one hell of an engaging biopic in its own right, even if some of the facts were left on the cutting room floor.
Curious just how deep N.W.A’s influence on music was, check out this ridiculously detailed Infographic the folks at Rukkus.com did.