The Gangster Rap biopic rides high on the era’s high-octane musical energy.
What’s NWA stand for, anyway? “No Whites Allowed”, something like that?
No. “N—-s Wit’ Attitudes.”
You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.
Those eleven words open the film Straight Outta Compton as well as the song and album that give the film its name. It’s a warning that what you’re about to see or hear is new, shocking, and unabashedly urban. After six years in development, F. Gary Gray’s biopic about the pioneering Gangster Rap group NWA finally hit theaters on Friday, and despite some pre-screening trepidation, I’m happy to say that the film does its subjects and era proud. The strongest parts of Straight Outta Compton thrive on the same energy and tumult that made the era’s music so intoxicating. It’s fun, wild, and unafraid to feel dangerous to an uninitiated audience.
NWA was a five-member group, but the film chronicles the journeys of its three largest stars, Rapper/producer/DJ Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Rapper and songwriter Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr – Ice Cube’s real life son), and Rapper/Ruthless Records head Eazy-E (Jackson Mitchell), through the group’s formation, prosperity, and inevitable breakup. The film actually starts in 1986, two years before the group’s seminal album dropped, and it does a lot of groundwork to portray life in Compton, California.
Compton is at its best as a street movie depicting the turmoil of inner city life. The attention paid to world-building pays off in spades when the totality of crime, drugs, and police brutality finally become overwhelming. The late 1980s Compton of the films feels like a complete dead end. Ice Cube constantly asserts that NWA does not glorify the gangster life style — they are just journalists presenting a brutally honest portrait of urban life. “What do you see when you walk out your front door?” Ice Cube asks a pushy white reporter, pointing out the disparity in their environments. Ice Cube’s first scene in the film involved gangsters threatening a school bus full of high schoolers at gunpoint, so there’s a definite difference in the lives these two men have led. If there are drug sales, it is the result of a lack of real business opportunities. If there are riots, they are an expression of a lack of hope. When Ice Cube is slammed onto the hood of a police cruiser while walking home, it is simply due to the unchecked blatant racism of the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s enough to even make even the whitest suburbanite want to stand up and scream “F–k tha police!”
These early scenes also feature the film’s most interesting directorial flourishes, utilizing handheld cameras to portray the guerilla feel of street life. When Eazy-E escapes a drug raid in the film’s opening minutes it’s shot with quick cuts and docu-style camerawork that would make a Bourne movie jealous. Eazy-E soon realizes that his only path to a long life involves escaping the drug trade. Dr. Dre wants a job that revolves around the old funk and R&B records he loves while providing for his young daughter. Ice Cube wants to rap about the problems of inner-city life, and they all want to escape from the dead end of Compton. So when they join forces with MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and start dropping hits on local radio, the five can see their paths to a brighter future – even if that short-sighted future is just women and money.
What Straight Outta Compton so perfectly understands is that by the late 1980s rock music was the establishment. The generation that promised to never trust anybody over thirty was now, itself, pressing fifty. When Eazy-E first meets Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the manager tries to impress the young rapper by listing off artists he’s worked with in the past, but names like Styx, Elton John, and Pink Floyd mean nothing to him. “Anyone from this decade?” he asks. NWA and their associates represented a new anti-establishment youth movement. They put the danger back in music the same way that The Rolling Stones and Sex Pistols had previously. Upsetting the powers that be is just par for the course, and it’s incredibly marketable. When the group receives a letter from the FBI chastising them for the anti-law enforcement lyrics of “F–k tha Police,” Heller is nervous, but Eazy-E recognizes it as valuable piece of promotion. That real letter hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to this day.
All three of the leads do admirable jobs. Jackson and Mitchell are even downright good. I don’t know their private circumstances, but all three seem connect with this music. Director Gray knows that the audience will too, and Straight Outta Compton is often the closest thing we may ever get to a Gangster Rap jukebox musical. “Straight Outta Compton,” “F— tha Police,” and “Gangsta Gangsta” are the blueprint for an entire genre, and Gray grants the audience every opportunity to hear them along with “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and a slew of other era classics. The film’s rampant energy derives from its performances, and it’s a thrill to see the songs move from no-name clubs to studio recordings to packed stadiums.
The film’s greatest asset is its refusal to be overly simple. Racism, violence, and police brutality are all presented as complex (and timely) issues, even when the film isn’t afraid to take a moral stand on them. A lesser film would have only vilified Jerry Heller as a greedy businessman whose underhanded dealings destroyed the group, but Straight Outta Compton recognizes the complexity of Heller’s influence. He’s the one who brings in a major label backer and who organizes their early tours. If he’s more concerned with Eazy-E’s wellbeing than the rest of the group’s, it’s because Eazy-E is the head of Ruthless Records, and the signee on all of the contracts. He even confronts the police when they harass his clients on the streets. But money is the great corruptor, and it destroys Heller just as it will later destroy each of artists. In Paul Giamatti’s capable hands Heller is a complex character ruined by greed, not simply a white man preying on black artists. He’s gracefully complicated, and the film’s portrayal of its protagonists is largely the same.
Straight Outta Compton could have easily aimed for hagiography, especially with the real artists’ heavy involvement, but it resists the urge to canonize its subjects. Yes, it sands down some of the harsher edges for its audience (Dr. Dre’s history of violence towards women, some of the thornier accusations of homophobia and anti-Semitism), but it doesn’t present its protagonists as flawless, either. NWA’s three stars all have outsized egos and tempers that obstruct their friendships in the name of business. Eazy-E turns a blind eye to Heller’s improper financial dealings with the rest of NWA. Ice Cube destroys a record executive’s office with a baseball bat during a pay dispute. Dr. Dre allows Suge Knight to beat Eazy-E to a pulp as a way of resolving a contract negotiation. For all their talent, Compton’s protagonists remain complicated men, and that is a very good thing.
Unfortunately, the film staggers in its last act when it decides it’s time to grow up. I understand the desire to show maturity and age, but the reality is that the later scenes just can’t compare to the raw energy and humor of the film’s first half. Everyone familiar with this story knows that Eazy-E dies of AIDS in a Los Angeles hospital, but it’s frankly lame to emphasize the sentimentality of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube hugging out their differences and leading candlelight vigils. Furthermore, the film’s last act is plagued by an I-Spy game of “spot the famous rapper,” with appearances from actors playing the likes of Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac. We know the influence of Ice Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E, but Straight Outta Compton wants to make sure we know. In the end the audience ends up in the same place that Eazy-E was when he first meets Heller: thinking that the up-and-coming stars are a lot more interesting that the old, rich establishment. Only the names have changed.
The film’s first two acts are fabulous soaring spectacle, and if the third isn’t perfect it’s at least forgivable. This was obviously a labor of love, and any fan of early Gangster Rap is sure to have a great time — the film’s technical efficiency and narrative complexity may even win over a few new fans. If, not, that’s fine. Not every film needs to target white Middle America. I’m sure Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and everyone else involved with the film are thrilled to death. This fan certainly was. And if you aren’t, then just remember Ice Cube’s lines from “Gangsta Gangsta”: “You don’t like how I’m living? Well, f–k you!” That attitude lives on.