I normally disdain biopics, especially music biopics, and had few expectations for Straight Outta Compton. I figured it would be corny, riddled with clichés and hopelessly compromised by its very famous and wealthy subjects’ involvement.1 It most definitely is all of that – it’s a problematic film, not to mention an exceedingly sexist one. Yet, especially early on, it’s quite engaging, the biopic tropes punctuated by surprisingly captivating drama and comedy, as well as the sheer excitement of the music whose development it chronicles.
Straight Outta Compton is not only a biopic; it also fits into the tradition of black cinema about life in the ghettos of Los Angeles that includes Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society and Friday. The music of N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre was obviously a huge influence on this genre, so things have perhaps come full circle. Few could have been more qualified than director F. Gary Gray, whose filmography includes Friday and a host of videos for the likes of Cube, Dre and Cypress Hill. It’s probably the most expensive and high-profile hood film ever made, often trafficking in the sort of action and gunplay that might feel more at home in a crime caper than a biography.
On the other hand it highlights African-American life and hip-hop culture in a way few other commercial films would. There are essentially no sympathetic white characters, and the depiction of police racism and brutality is uncompromising. It also effectively captures the exuberance and humour and, dare I say, the joy of gangsta rap. What other Hollywood biopic would have a key protagonist dismissing a group of Kangol-clad rivals from New York, saying “Y’all Beat Street-lookin’ motherfuckers get the fuck out!” while brandishing a half-drunk bottle of cognac in a threatening manner? This scene and others like it made this lifelong hip-hop fan (and overgrown kid) cackle with delight – making the impending letdown even more of a shame.
Deep down some unjaded part of me is amazed that N.W.A. have achieved this kind of legacy status, subject to the sort of slick, golden-filtered biopic normally reserved for the likes of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. I was a senior in high school when N.W.A. first blew up; I haven’t lived long enough to forget their impact. They were our Sex Pistols, only if the Pistols were black – far more important to me than Nirvana was three years later. “Fuck the police coming straight from the underground.” No one had ever said anything like that before on public airwaves.2
Soon afterwards I moved to LA. My formative years included junkyard raves in the hood, drinking 40s with real gangstas, being harassed by cops and witnessing the 1992 uprising firsthand. Hip hop was not only a soundtrack but a context and an education. I was more deeply influenced by conscious hip hop like Public Enemy and the Native Tongues, but N.W.A.’s storytelling about the streets I could see with my own eyes was too compelling to pass up, despite the exploitation and misogyny – and Dre’s beats were among the dopest.
Few of the young, mostly white, Aussies I saw at the screening I attended would have been born then. Somehow, gangsta rap has become a permanent rite of passage, a universally applicable “You don’t like how I’m livin’, well fuck you.” It’s why “Fuck the police” shows up in this iconic photo from Ferguson. It’s why those stupid headphones fly off the shelf. It’s why young people all over the English-speaking world affect a West Coast drawl to say things like, “That new Apichatpong Weerasethakul film is dope, son.”
More to the point, gangsta rap sells, and keeps on selling. It’s entertainment – hugely profitable entertainment. And this is a problem: the exploitation factor is real. Plenty of white folks love to hear about drug dealing and shootouts, and have an excuse to say “bitch” and “ho” and “nigga.” As Chris Rock says, “They lean into that shit!” Compton’s role in that exploitation is layered and complex.
The film is at its best when it’s about the music, and for a while it really brought me back to that first flush of fandom. The lovingly detailed opening scenes are saturated with the laid-back, booty-shaking essence of what made the ’80s funk, electro and hip-hop scene in LA so special and influential. There’s a wonderful shot of the young Dre lying on the record-strewn floor of his bedroom, headphones on, eyes closed, grooving to Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Other classic jams by Zapp, Funkadelic and Cherelle soundtrack shots of sun-drenched ghetto boulevards and pimped-out low rides.
Steve Arrington’s smokin’ “Weak at the Knees” is cut up by Dre at an R&B club as the teenaged Ice Cube grabs the mic and tests out an early version of “Gangsta Gangsta,” hyping up the packed dancefloor. “We don’t just say no, we’re too busy saying yeah!” That scene, and the group’s roof-raising debut at a Compton music hall, are bursting with fun and a real sense of what a good gig looks and feels like. Gray maintains that quality as the arenas get bigger; the passages recreating the epochal 1989 tour are spot-on, some of the best concert scenes I’ve seen in any narrative film.3
To his credit, Gray often eludes the biopic trap early on – the staccato editing rhythm, the endless montages, the suffocating sense you’re watching one long trailer. Scenes develop organically; conversations ramble on, marked by the slang, comic insults and asides that are so distinctively “black LA.” The memorable scene in which Dre teaches the squeaky-voiced Eazy how to rap (with Ice Cube’s lyrics) during the recording of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” plays out sinuously through several satisfying dramatic and comic turns.
The acting of the leads is outstanding. There was no reason to hope that Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. should be this good in the roles of Dre, Eazy and Cube, and take on their personas so believably, but they consistently add extra dimension and drama.Even Jackson’s status as a Sean Lennon to his dad’s inimitable genius is overcome; somehow he is Ice Cube onscreen.4 It says something that they all hold their own against Paul Giamatti, who chews into his role as scheming agent Jerry Heller with relish; his scenes with Mitchell’s Eazy are touching and intricate.
Unfortunately even the stronger first half of the film is dragged down by banal convention (as when Dre’s saintly mother tells him he has no future, before disappearing entirely). The irresistible pull of financing-as-biography often makes the proceedings feel like a TVC. Is it fair to point out the wardrobe anachronisms that make the members of N.W.A. circa 1987 look a lot cooler to modern eyes than they would have? Are the Michael Mann/Martin Scorsese-influenced action scenes – N.W.A. as unflappable poet-warriors, as cool with gats pointed at them as they are on the mic – merely embellished or completely blagged? To be fair, gangsta rap’s debt to ‘gangster’ cinema is fundamental. The film only reflects the boasting and gritty storytelling intrinsic to the form, and the action scenes – especially the near-riot after a concert in Detroit resulting in the group’s arrest – are often thrilling.
Things get much more disturbing when we look at the treatment of women. Most significantly, the film completely omits Dre’s 1991 assault of reporter Dee Barnes. As Barnes points out in her own brilliant, wrenching commentary on the film, the terrible beating she suffered might not be suitable for a general audience, but it’s extremely dishonest not to mention it at all, especially given how big a story it was at the time. One wonders whether, if Gray and his producers had the courage to address it, Compton could have been elevated by some Raging Bull-type pathos and probity. Too much to ask, I suppose.
Compton also lamely bypasses references to a number of female artists crucial to this history, including R&B singer Michel’le (Dre’s onetime girlfriend and another victim of his violence); the all-girl rap group J.J. Fad (whose big hits for Ruthless Records paved the way for N.W.A.’s success); and frequent Cube collaborator Yo-Yo. A bizarre choice, given how young viewers, male or female, would have gone for detail about those pioneering women. The few remaining female speaking roles are a motley collection of nurturing or long-suffering types. Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy’s widow and current owner of Ruthless, is the only one with any screentime to speak of (probably because she’s also one of the film’s producers), but her character is mainly tasked with some accounting. Contrast this with the women who function as eye candy or sex objects at the many wild parties, sometimes hundreds at a time. There would be something positive to be said for the lewd fun on display here if everything else were equal, but it’s not.5
In a series of tweets effusively praising the film, Selma director Ava DuVernay wrote, “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.” DuVernay is from Compton and was a teenager during the era represented. Who’s going to tell her she’s wrong or misguided because her takeaway is positive?
DuVernay also specifically applauds Compton’s extensive depiction of police violence; besides the music, it’s the film’s most powerful component. In the opening scene a police tank with a battering ram destroys a house during a raid. It’s like something from a Christopher Nolan Batman film, but it’s frighteningly realistic – LAPD led the nation in the police militarization that has become so widespread and controversial. Critically, we see the tank and black-uniformed troopers from a distance before we ever see cops with human faces – the perspective is that of people whose neighbourhoods are being invaded. A later scene in which officers led by a black cop detain the group outside their recording studio in a white suburb (with Heller making futile efforts to defend them) is the film’s dramatic peak; the mounting tension and anger are electrifying. “Cause they’ll slam you down to the street top/Black police showing out for the white cop.” It’s impossible to avoid seeing these scenes as commentary on America post-Ferguson.
Most of this vitality drains out of the second half – except for some deliciously loopy scenes featuring the notorious Suge Knight, portrayed by R. Marcos Taylor as a cross between Marsellus Wallace and Idi Amin. Mainly the film tediously documents the group’s slow litigious demise, and Cube’s and Dre’s rise to mogul status, as Eazy’s life unravels into melodrama. The interest here is only intermittent – the many arguments over recording contracts must be way more intriguing to the subject-producers than to us – and the dialogue is sometimes as laughably expository as a videogame cutscene, as we play the biopic game of spot-the-famous-collaborator (hey, it’s Snoop Dogg; oh look, it’s Tupac). As we lurch towards 150 minutes, the feeling we’re being sold something (cheap headphones, a new album, a way of life) gets tiresome.
If Straight Outta Compton were fully an hour shorter; if it were primarily about life in Compton, the band’s early days and their relationship with a racist society; and for God’s sake if it would just fess up a bit about the abuse of women, we might have something to be really excited about. As it is, if you’re a fan like me you’ll find big chunks of the film really compelling and the music as dope as ever, but it’s hard to ignore the bitter aftertaste of dishonesty and hucksterism.