The issues facing biopics can be insurmountable: the risk of catering too much to still living subjects, shying away from harsh truths, stuffing the film with too much incident, performances devolving into simple impersonations, and many more. With Dr. Dre and Ice Cube on board as producers of their own story – that of pivotal rap collective N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton certainly ran the risk of being neutered. Adding to that pre-release trepidation was the decision to cast O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube, meaning his real life son would be playing a younger version of himself. Could a strong narrative emerge from these seemingly stacked odds and break free of formula?
Straight Outta Compton blasts out of the gate, leaving doubts about its sincerity behind as it breathlessly introduces the three main creative forces of N.W.A. in South L.A. circa 1986. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a low level dealer whose bravado and hustle makes up for his short stature. His first scene in a dingy trap house is one of the movie’s most tense, as he’s caught between duplicitous dealers and a militarized L.A. police force looking to bust down the door.
From there we meet lyricist and writer Ice Cube. He’s bussed to a better school each day but still comes home to Compton at night, running a gauntlet of both hardened gang members and ignorant, racist cops. He makes music with the gifted Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), a nightclub DJ trying to support his young family and make his dreams happen. Together these three form the nucleus of what would become N.W.A. (along with DJ Yella and MC Ren), a “reality rap” group (as Dre’s nightclub boss dubs it) that would infuse their music with the harsh truth they saw on the streets, busting open the rap game and paving the way for the gangster rap wave of the 90’s.
These early scenes thrum with life as Dre and Cube begin to combine their beats and rhymes, while Eazy-E provides the backing money for a back alley recording studio. There are moments that are positively electric, making the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you witness the genesis of iconic tracks like the titular “Straight Outta Compton” and the confrontational “Fuck Tha Police” (which explodes as catharsis after a run-in with harsh L.A.P.D. officers). These were artists reflecting their reality and committing it to song, something that was shocking and transgressive to much of America in the pre-internet 1980’s that garnered an overwhelming response from loyal fans while scandalizing news outlets.
The timeliness of the movie can’t be denied, and to see N.W.A.’s legendary Detroit performance on their first tour (during which they were all arrested for supposedly inciting a riot and violence against police) is to witness a movie recreate a seminal moment in hip hop near perfectly. That moment comes halfway through and feels like a real peak, a problem which the rest of the movie never fully recovers from. No matter, as there’s no lack of history, beefs, drama, disses, and deaths for Straight Outta Compton to detail.
Paul Giamatti plays the pivotal role of Jerry Heller, N.W.A.’s manager who took a shine to Eazy-E while excluding other members from the inner workings of the group. His shock of white hair is kind of laughable, but Heller functions as expository plot device and convenient punching bag in many of his scenes. Adding menace and outright villainy to much of the second half of the film is Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), a bear of a man whose hair-trigger temper and penchant for violence is still legendary in the hip hop world (he’s on trial now right now for murder). He lurks in the background for much of the film before poaching Dre for his own label and bringing him into a debauched world.
The focus of the first half of the movie (mainly about the formation of the group, their meteoric rise and the impact it had on the members) gives way to a more disjointed second half in which the movie seemingly compacts the divergent members’ history in too concise a manner. Thankfully the throbbing music, endless deal-making, wild parties and soulful performances carry the movie through any rough patches, rarely giving it a chance to slow during its nearly two and a half hour runtime.
This is a well-sketched world that feels alternately hardscrabble (the rough streets of Compton), ruthless (the members of N.W.A. turning against one another) and triumphant (the massive success and cultural impact they achieved). For the most part the reality of Straight Outta Compton is unassailable (archival footage helps, as does the casting of Ice Cube’s son which works out in the movie’s favour), though occasionally it slips up (Keith Stanfield’s Snoop is more of a caricature, but then again Snoop’s so idiosyncratic that it would’ve been hard for anyone to play him).
Mostly though Straight Outta Compton wildly exceeds expectations, turning the complicated history of one of rap’s most iconic groups into a thrilling and palatable tale that honours the music and where it comes from. There’s undoubtedly some notable omissions and the movie at times takes pains to indemnify its subjects, but it doesn’t detract from a powerful story about a particular place and time (the Rodney King riots provide the movie with one of its most potent images – red Blood and blue Crips bandanas tied together in unison against overzealous cops).
This is recent history being mythologized, as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube themselves re-write their saga (obviously with the help of screenwriters, director F. Gary Gray, and countless other artists) and present it up for canonization in cinema form. It’s messy as times, but there’s real life in the bones of this movie and is full of great, funny lines (which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that N.W.A. traffics in wordplay). It mostly avoids the biopic clichés while hitting some – one character’s loss of his brother is both familiar and affecting.
Behind its recreation of pivotal scenes, blistering take on the rap game, and surprising heart (Mitchell as Eazy-E is a a standout) there also beats the indignation and righteous anger that comes with systematic oppression. Suge Knight, money-grubbing managers and lying studio executives are not the real enemies here and instead Straight Outta Compton shows that it’s institutionalized prejudice, lies, censorship and bullying that we have to stand up to, and that message is as potent today as it was 25 years ago.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Runtime: 147 minutes