So Straight Outta Compton came out two weeks ago with some pretty significant controversy behind both its production and its release. The most notable and ludicrous of these was Universal’s insistence on extra security at theaters in fears of gang violence and riots (a thought which is infuriatingly smacks of racial stereotyping), while the one I am a little bit more aware of is the complaint about the movie’s dismissive manner towards women in hip-hop and a sub-current of misogyny throughout (this is not exactly including the infamous Dee Barnes assault, an omission which honestly doesn’t bother me so much as the excuse that “it didn’t serve the narrative” that I don’t believe for one second).
Anyway, I just want to get that elephant in the room noted while also introducing my thoughts on this movie for a quick second. The film features a scene within a press conference where the Compton-based hip hop group N.W.A. are hit with the oft-given criticism towards their debut album that shares the movie’s name that it is glorifying gangster lifestyle and violence. And Ice Cube, as portrayed by his real-life son O’Shea Jackson Jr., responds stating that their work is merely reflective of the life and world they have lived in. One other member, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), tells them that he finds it very unfortunate that they find the content of their music “glamorous”.
At the first moment I saw this movie (of which I missed the first 20 minutes for reasons to complicated to elaborate, but warranting a second trip to the theater), I took this as some sort of meta-statement on the movie itself, whether deliberate or incidental. That the movie announced it was going to attempt to showcase the life Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Cube, Ren, and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) had gone through as they got together as N.W.A. and then later apart, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that’s not entirely the case.
If you look at the producer’s credit, you’ll catch the names of both Dre and Cube on there and you’re obviously going to catch the sense that I did around the moment the production was announced, that there’s obviously going to be some kind of self-congratulatory tone going on here. I’ve never been much of a fan of biopics as a genre, I’ve been even less a fan of self-authorized biopics. Straight Outta Compton as an album is something I liked but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of N.W.A. themselves (I’ve always preferred Cube’s solo work).
This is another elephant in the room I wanted to note: the concept that Straight Outta Compton as a movie was obviously going to be a commercial for Aftermath and Lench Mob, which it absolutely is. Dre and Cube are given a hell of a lot of self-love in the movie (facilitated by casting Cube’s son in the movie – not that he doesn’t do a good job – or F. Gary Gray collaborating with Cube again to facilitate this admiring biopic), showcased as smarter than everybody in the room and especially making a point of designating Cube on the right during the inevitable schism between he and N.W.A. with Dre as an intellectual wingman that almost makes Eazy-E look like the antagonist, since Eazy is the closest that group has to a flawed character. Cube and Dre aren’t portrayed as flawed in the slightest. They know they’re always right and the only reason Eazy is portrayed in a balanced manner seems to be because he’s not alive anymore to tell his side of the story.
So, we know what to expect on the out-front: Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s ode to their selves free of any woman-beating. The pleasant thing is that Straight Outta Compton, despite all these things going against it in my mind, is still pretty serviceable as a biopic. It’s got enough of a steady flow in spite of tangling its stories up and the cinematography by Matthew Libatique gives the movie enough of a nostalgic polaroid sense that I’m still willing to dive into the movie enough. Sure, it’s not at all as true to its pretty mastubatory nor is it really worth its 2 and a half runtime, but the working parts within the picture are still moving.
Part of what gives it its structural challenges (while also honestly reminding me of Boyhood in a sense) is how Straight Outta Compton wants to serve four different narratives though – there is how manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) apparently exploits them and specifically Eazy-E, how the police/community relations in Compton has been on a steady decline to inevitable explode when Rodney King has his historically misfortunate encounter, how N.W.A. breaks up and gets into beef with each other, and how notorious hip-hop mogul Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) has been bullying his own way into the hop-hop business and has Dre working under his thumb – essentially establishing Eazy-E (although obviously he doesn’t remain confrontational to Cube and Dre), Heller, and Knight as the three primary antagonists of the film. There are other tangential pieces, but they don’t nearly have as much focus on them and they seem more incidental to the scenario. They mostly serve as marks for where the movie could have used more trimming to its very generous runtime (I particularly recall two moments: One where they witness protestors destroying N.W.A. albums and after Easy-E rips a line off of John Lennon’s response to the Beatles’ own protests, they never mention this reaction once again. In fact, there’s a whiplash in tone later in the film when audiences witness N.W.A. being arrested and chant in support. The other is a hotel standoff that adds to the accused misogyny of the film – there are three roles of women in the film: A doting mother, a topless groupie, or just a trophy girlfriend – and only serves as a “Look how gangster, toting guns in hotel lobbies!”).
In any case, despite lapses in momentum, editor Billy Fox is able to circumvent this for the most part to give a mostly smooth running delivery of the history of N.W.A. in the amount of time given to a motion picture. At the same time, the script allows for some unsubtle but not obnoxious either drops of West Coast hip-hop lore spreading across from N.W.A.’s legacy – appearances by Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and 2Pac (
Tupac Shakur, sorry, actually Marcc Rose voiced by Darris Love, but I’ll kiss your ass if that didn’t look and sound like Tupac) – give an implication of hip-hop growing faster at the late 80s and early 90s than ever and give an argument for the acceptance of hip-hop as a cultural art, even if it also seems to be deliberately just a “Dr. Dre is the FATHER of hip-hop” moment. In particular, a moment where a certain Dre and Dogg track is depicted in its creation is the movie’s finest moment in its documentary-esque casual style and the unimportant manner in which one of hip-hop’s most popular songs of all time was dropped. And while it seems self-important to include the 1992 L.A. riots and to imply N.W.A. was at the forefront of that movement, it still serves well to contextualize exactly what it was Dre, Cube, Eazy and company were standing against in their music – the real-life atmosphere of racial tensions and abuses of power that charged albums like Straight Outta Compton. It doesn’t make N.W.A. a bunch of good guys to shout “Fuck the Police” like in a very climactic concert scene against the Detroit police force, but it makes them show that they’re angry enough to bite the hand that is trying to close their mouths shut.
So in spite of its broadly telegraphed worship of itself and its own problems, Straight Outta Compton is still a very successful work of capturing a smaller part of history in a bottle and dramatizing it in a compelling way to make for doable time at the theater (I neglected to mention that of the three main leads, each has their own moment in the film to showcase their acting muscles, otherwise doing well enough to be placed as surrogates for the real artists). In a culture where I can’t really say I’m a fan of many biopics or hip-hop films, I don’t mean it as faint praise to say that Straight Outta Compton is the first one I’ve seen since 8 Mile (assuming that even counts as a biopic) that actually still works as a film in spite of itself.