Partway through Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of hip-hop/gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A, the group is about to play a packed-house show in Detroit. Members of the Detroit Police Department have instructed the group of a laundry list of things they are forbidden to do during the show, the biggest of which is that they are not allowed to perform their hit song “F*ck Tha Police” under penalty of arrest. Taking to the stage, the group appears for a time to abide by the edict, but ultimately refuses to kowtow to authority and defiantly belts out the song. When the police attempt to shut them down, a riot begins to break out and the group is cuffed and tossed into a police van as the crowd turns on the arresting officers. Piled on top of each other in the van, the group begins laughing triumphantly, attempting to high-five as best they can with their hands bound behind them. It was totally worth it.
That aura of proud rebellion against authority fueled N.W.A in their late-‘80s rise to prominence, their music providing a long-delayed counteroffensive against the police officers who took every opportunity to treat them like criminals on a daily basis, whether they had engaged in illicit activity or not. Their success gave the powerless a platform to speak truth to power, to push back against a lifetime of indignities and injustices. The anger in N.W.A’s lyrics was palpable and incendiary, and the best moments in this film are the ones that hone in on that fury.
In 1986, we meet Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), a drug dealer living life constantly on the precipice of death or incarceration. Eric’s friend, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is a pie-in-the-sky dreamer who longs to turn his musical gifts into something more than penny-ante DJ gigs. Their mutual friend, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Ice Cube’s actual son), is a talented lyricist with no outlet for his skills beyond the scribblings in his notebooks. Dre convinces Eazy to use some of his ill-gotten cash to fund a musical endeavor, but when the hired talent doesn’t work out, Dre decides that maybe he and his friends, including Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.), step into the booth themselves rather than merely produce. Though some members don’t immediately take to the mic with ease (Dre coaching a green Eazy on how to rap is one of the film’s funnier scenes), the debut record they ultimately produce makes an immediate splash.
From there, Straight Outta Compton wastes little time getting to N.W.A’s meteoric rise. Eazy hooks up with a small-time producer named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who uses his business acumen to get the group further into the limelight, eventually signing a deal with Priority Records, a label whose biggest clients at that point were the California Raisins. The group experiences platinum-selling success while making headlines and powerful enemies with their inflammatory lyrics. However, internal strife is created when Jerry structures contracts that give only a pittance of the proceeds to the members of the group other than Eazy, causing Cube to depart for a solo career, with Dre eventually following suit.
Straight Outta Compton is at its best during its earlier scenes, featuring the group members coming together while dealing with constant adversity. The scenes where the group encounters belligerent members of the police force, officers prone to treating them as hostiles as a default move, are the strongest, as they tap into the uneasy relationship between law enforcement and black youths that remains such a hotbed issue to this day. Also exceptional is the way that the group members viciously turn on one another after going their separate ways, using their lyrics to engage in an ongoing back-and-forth flame war waged from album to album.
It’s the second half of Straight Outta Compton that begins to buckle under biopic clichés, with Eazy emerging as the requisite tragic figure for whom the bottom falls out. Betrayed by Jerry, bullied by Suge Knight, the terrifying CEO of Dre’s Death Row Records, and forced to watch helplessly as his former comrades achieve the sort of mega-success on their own that has eluded him, Eazy’s downfall is what gives the film its too-familiar shape. By the time he begins ominously coughing, we would intrinsically know what was coming even if we weren’t already familiar with his real-life fate. Too much of this section of the film feels manipulative and maudlin, casting aside the more vibrant and compelling elements that fueled the earlier portions.
The acting is solid across the board. Mitchell makes Eazy’s turmoil effective in spite of the film’s ham-handed approach to his fall from grace. Jackson, not surprisingly given the family resemblance, does quite well at approximating Ice Cube, even if he doesn’t fully summon the sneering ferocity of his old man. And Corey Hawkins brings a surprisingly amount of soulfulness to Dre, even if this depiction of the man seems a bit hagiographic. Because Dre and Cube produced the film, there is the sense that their onscreen representations are a bit whitewashed, assigning all the less flattering characterizations to Eazy. The worst we ever see Cube do is wield a bat in an executive’s office, with Dre’s only blemish being a reckless bout of speeding. MC Ren and DJ Yella don’t really even register as pivotal characters, the focus, unsurprisingly, kept tightly on the three more famous members.
Giamatti does well, if a bit too comfy within his repertoire, playing a sleaze who genuinely wants to consider himself a paternal figure. R. Marcus Taylor is suitably intimidating as Suge Knight, a bone-deep thug who isn’t going to allow multimillion-dollar legitimacy wash the street off of him (if one weren’t familiar with Suge Knight’s real-life persona, one could be forgiven for chastising the film for creating such a cartoonish villain). Straight Outta Compton also becomes a sort of hip-hop Hall of Presidents, with cameos by Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield, in the ballpark, but not quite there) and Tupac (Marcc Rose, so there that it’s eerie).
But the quality that gives Straight Outta Compton most of its propulsiveness over the course of its generous two-and-a-half-hour running time is the music, which still carries a combustive charge almost thirty years later. The palpable rage contained within those songs remains striking and revolutionary, awarded even more power by virtue of the fact that the root causes of that anger continue unabated to this day. A coda, using real footage of the group, fills in the post-Eazy legacies of the surviving members for the intervening years, but N.W.A’s relevance to the modern world doesn’t lie with Eminem or Ride Along. It’s evident on the nightly news, on far too many nights, where there’s still plenty to be angry about.
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