In 1989 there were two Hip-hop groups that towered over everything: Public Enemy and N.W.A. One was East Coast and one was West Coast, but they were much more divided by their different lyrical approaches. Public Enemy would seem to be the embodiment over everything that the intellectual class wanted hip-hop to be: they made socially conscious protest music and set it to infectious beats you could party to. Their less reputable west coast cousins in N.W.A, by contrast, were a lot harder to defend in op-eds and at middle class dinner parties. They made profane gangster narratives, denigrated women and homosexuals, and had no qualms about bragging about money. This is probably why Public Enemy are currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and N.W.A aren’t, but that narrative is problematic, in part because it fails to acknowledge just how courageously political N.W.A actually were. It’s a lot easier to make vague revolutionary statements about “fighting the power” (“power” being something that naïve young white people can choose means whatever they want it to mean) than it is to throw out “respectability politics” altogether and shout “fuck the police.” Looking back, Public Enemy’s music looks less like a brave new turning point for hip-hop and more like a final scream of an old-school sound defined by DJ turntables, sample collages, and hype-man interjections, N.W.A by contrast seems significantly more influential and a straight line can quite easily be drawn from “Straight Outta Compton” to “All Eyez on Me” to “Ready to Die” to “The Blueprint” to “Get Rich or Die Tryin.’” Up until Southern Hip Hop started shaking things up in the mid-2000s, it was the sound set down by Dr. Dre back in ’89 that would define an entire musical genre’s trajectory.
The movie begins in 1986 and primarily focuses on the three most famous members of the group: Ice Cube (played by the actual rapper’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) is largely sidelined and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) is depicted as almost a comic relief character who kind of sits back and wisecracks about the soap opera that unfolds around him. We watch how the various members came together and are given a good idea of what each member brought to the table. Dr. Dre was the musical genius behind the group’s beats, Ice Cube was the main lyrics writer and brought the political dimension to the group, and Eazy-E brought the most street cred to the table while also financing the early recording sessions with his drug money. We then see how they managed to rise to national prominence with the aid of a sleazy manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and also see how his toxic influence also led to the group’s swift breakup and the ensuing back and forth between the former memebers.
In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty familiar with N.W.A and know a thing or two about their story. I’ve long thought that this saga could make for a cool movie if treated the right way and turned into an epic of music, politics, and betrayal but I’ve never had much confidence in Hollywood to do it right. In particular I didn’t have a lot of faith in this version of the story, mainly because Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow were all brought on as producers, which is a huge red flag. These are people with images to maintain and who can’t always be trusted to view their own legacies objectively. Look no further than the 2009 Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious to see how easily family members can soften movies like this and force their subjects to be seen in a certain light. That movie wasn’t a complete hagiography, but it was way too focused on trying to make its protagonist into someone who was blameless for almost every problem in his life and who came across like a misunderstood teddy bear more often than not. I do get a whiff of interference in a few places with this movie as well. Dr. Dre’s infamous assault on TV personality Dee Barnes is nowhere to be found in the film and it also seems to avoid re-living the diss tracks that were directed towards Eazy-E (they literally turn off the song “No Vaseline” right before the verse about Eazy and Dre’s feud with him is omitted entirely via a jump forward in time, this depriving us of the making of that video where the Eazy-E lookalike is holding a “will rap for food” sign) but the effects weren’t as extreme as I was expecting and the filmmakers mostly made the logical choices rather than the PR driven ones.
Straight Outta Compton is produced on a large scale and seems to recognize the importance of its story without being self-serious about it. The internet tells me that the movie only cost $28 million to make and I find that hard to believe given production values on display. Pretty much the only concessions to budget seem to be the film’s cinematography (this is yet another digitally shot movie that can’t seem to handle shooting in dark environments) and its cast of mostly unknown actors. All three of the film’s main actors deliver solid performances but not extraordinary ones and you won’t see any “Jamie Foxx in Ray” or “Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line” level imitations either. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. obviously looks a lot like his father but maybe doesn’t carry himself with the same authority. Corey Hawkins by contrast clearly seems to understand Dr. Dre’s mannerisms but doesn’t seem to sound that much like him (well, he doesn’t sound like what Dre sounds like when he’s rapping, having checked some vintage interviews it seems the guy did have a slightly different speaking voice). Jason Mitchell’s Eazy-E is probably the most convincing of the three, but even he wasn’t quite perfect. Paul Giamatti is the loan acting veteran in the cast and his extra experience is noticeable. The screenplay does a really good job of making Jerry Heller a somewhat sympathetic character, a manager who had did seem to genuinely understand the importance of this music and did seem to care about the people he was managing to some extent but who was nonetheless exploiting them and taking unfair amounts of money off the top as per standard music industry practice, and Giamatti does a good job of playing into the grey areas the screenplay gives him.
A lot of critics flinch when given a biopic to review, and musical biopics in particular tend to be looked at with a lot of suspicion. Straight Outta Compton doesn’t do anything radical to break out of that mold and I suspect it will be criticized because of it, but I think that is unfounded. Not every movie based on a real life cultural figure can or should do something wild like I’m Not There just to differentiate itself from the baggage of being a biopic and this movie was right to mostly play things straight. That isn’t to say that the film feels overly clichéd and it does differentiate itself from other movies about bands, in part because NWA did have a somewhat unique trajectory in the music industry. The group was relatively short lived, which gives the film a manageable scope and avoids the “greatest hits” compression that movies like Ray had to deal with. What’s more, the group’s eventual breakup was a bit more dramatic than your average rock band downfall what with all the public feuding and Suge Knight assisted backstabbing. The film also generates a lot of extra interest by tying the group’s incendiary lyrics to the environment that the group’s members inhabited. The film does a great job of painting a picture of 80s/90s Compton and in just a few scenes showing how police antagonism would have played into the band members psyches leading up to the Rodney King Riots.
The Rodney King element of the film proves to be something of a double edged sword for the film. The case provides a perfect example of the kind of police brutality that led them to write “Fuck the Police,” and much of the film’s second act seems to be leading up to the riots, but when they finally do come they feel like something of an anti-climax. The riots were the moment where the anger that NWA had warned everyone about was finally thrust into White America’s face, but the film only really seems to spend something like three minutes on them and rather than dealing with the immediate fallout the movie just jumps forward six months in time at that point and the whole movie sort of seems to lose steam at that point.
The last thirty minutes or so of the film feel oddly abridged and yet over-stuffed. Ice Cube kind of disappears in this section and the film tells parallel stories about Dr. Dre’s discontentment with Death Row Records and Eazy-E’s slow realization that Jerry Heller was kind of an asshole. Here the film tries to fit a little too much in a short period of time and indulges in a few too many inclusions that kind of feel like fan service. The decision to bring in a Tupac impersonator for all of one scene probably did a good job of establishing a timeline for those wondering when he, Dre, and Suge Knight’s stories intersected, but the inclusion stands out awkwardly just the same. Similarly, did the film need to be calling attention to Eazy-E’s discovering of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony right as the film was wrapping up? Probably not. Otherwise the whole film has kind of a bad habit of throwing scenes into the movie seemingly just to make sure a famous song is included. The aforementioned Tupac moment definitely feels that way and so does an otherwise pointless scene where Dre is seen listening to Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” just so those in the know can think “Ha! He must be planning to write ‘Let Me Ride’ while listening to that.” Thing is, I acknowledge that these things do kind of cheapened the movie and screw with the pacing but I enjoyed all of them and I’m not sure I would have wanted to see them go.
To put it bluntly, I really enjoyed this movie. Like, a lot. The big question I have, and it’s a question I still don’t really have an answer to, is whether it was the hip-hop fan in me or the film buff in me that was driving my enjoyment. The film was directed by F. Gary Gray, a filmmaker who’s always had a certain degree of talent and professionalism but who I’ve never had a lot of respect for as an auteur. Gray has long been sort of typecast as the maker of critically ignored “black movies” like Friday and Set it Off and whenever he leaves that milieu he seems to make serviceable mediocrities like the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, but having finally been given some respectable material he seems to have really risen to the occasion. This is still defiantly a journeyman effort, but I was definitely impressed with some of the camerawork and energy that he brought to the proceedings. If I have any real complaint with the filmmaking it’s that the actual musical moments sometimes aren’t really one of the films strong points. The scenes where the group performs in concert don’t really sound like live performances; I don’t know for sure how much of the rapping was actually done by the cast but one way or another they looked and sounded kind of like lip synching to me. Otherwise, this is s a really well rendered biopic. Would I recommend it to someone who wasn’t already a big NWA fan like myself? I don’t know, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to someone who straight-up hates hip-hop but open minded audiences should be able to find more to enjoy here than they would out of the average musical biopic. It’s a movie that certainly doesn’t break any new ground but which does really rise up to the challenge of telling this story that so many fans have been wanting to see turned into a Hollywood epic, and I was leaning forward in my seat while watching it with the kind of smile across my face that a movie hasn’t elicited in me in a long time.
***1/2 out of Four