In the mid-’80s, Compton, California wasn’t exactly the #1 vacation destination of the country. Wanting to make something of their hard experiences growing up in the hood, five men – Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) – form the group N.W.A., an abbreviation for the PBS Kids friendly “Niggaz Wit Attitudes”.
With chips on their shoulders and plenty to prove to the world, N.W.A. railed against the abusive powers that be and revolutionized the hip-hop scene.
Long before Ice Cube started pimping out Are We There Yet? movies and shows and Dr. Dre started selling overrated headphones for the price of taking out a second mortgage on your home, N.W.A took the country by storm, and even with just only two studio albums, left an indelible impact on the hip-hop genre. Even I, as one who is not a fan of rap at all, realize that and understand if not for their contribution, fans might not have gotten Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game, Vanilla Ice – cue record scratching.
Considering my dislike of rap, you can take my “ignorant, narrow-minded rocker” critique here with a grain of salt. But my personal music preferences are irrelevant here ’cause the film fan and, more specifically, the biopic fan in me was looking forward to this movie, and not just ’cause I’ll take whatever film I can get during the film slog that is the “dog days of August” in between the summer blockbuster and Oscar seasons either.
Director F. Gary Gray, whose feature film debut 20 years ago was Ice Cube’s Friday, wouldn’t have been my first choice to direct Straight Outta Compton. His relationship with Ice Cube helps, having directed the video for Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” as well as many other music videos of his, but his overall filmography (ranging from the decent flicks Friday, The Negotiator and The Italian Job remake to the stinkers A Man Apart, Be Cool and Law Abiding Citizen) doesn’t stack up to other filmmakers who’ve successfully made films similar in tone and style to this like the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) or Oscar nominee John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood).
That said, to Gray’s credit, the first half of this film is quite strong. As standard biopic formulas go, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t distinguish itself from the pack. It’s the typical narrative path of the background, formation, rise to fame and eventually fall that most biopics follow, but Gray pieces together N.W.A’s formation and rise to fame through Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti doing what he does best in his second manipulative band manager role this year following Love & Mercy) in razor-sharp focused, tightly-paced, fashion. Combined with longtime Darren Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Gray, whose sense of visual flair has always been evident throughout his career, gives the film a beautiful, distinctive look between the nostalgic haze of the ’80s and the sleek, vibrant and energetic vibe of the concert scenes.
Like me, you don’t have to be one of the N.W.A. faithful to find yourself engaged at the painstaking efforts Dr. Dre went through in recording Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” song literally line-by-line (in a recent interview, Ice Cube stated that it took a couple days for Eazy-E and Dr. Dre to record the entire song due to Eazy’s inexperience as a rapper), or the tense showdown between the group and the Detroit police during their infamous 1989 show at the Joe Louis Arena.
Those of you who have been keeping track of MC Ren’s bitching on Twitter over his portrayal will know that not all five of the members are gonna get their fair dose of development. Ren, however, would be a fool to not know that the most of the screen time would be going to Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. Still, the performances from the five are all fine, especially from O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Cube, Dre and Eazy, respectively. Casting Ice Cube’s son to play himself could’ve backfired hard as a move purely motivated by ego and nepotism, and I admit to being skeptical over the casting at first, but Jackson delivers strong work and captures all of his dad’s trademark expressions and mannerisms without them coming off like a cheap imitation.
Here’s the problem with this film. The first half is strong stuff, delving deep into their rise, run-ins with power-tripping cops and cease and desist orders from the FBI over their song “Fuck tha Police”. But then the second half, right in the thick of Ice Cube’s split from N.W.A. and the feud between the two that followed, sucks out all of the film’s life and energy and replaces it with a by-the-numbers checklist of melodramatic biopic beats. Of course, that’s the cross for most, if not all, biopics to bear, but it’s disappointing the way this film starts out strong only to have its edge bottom out halfway through (most notably in the way Gray half-heartedly handles the issue of Eazy-E’s AIDS through on-the-nose, over-the-top coughing).
The big flaw, though, isn’t so much the soft second half as it is the obvious white-washing. It’s no surprise since Cube, Dre and Eazy’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright are producers of this film, certain aspects of their lives would be sugarcoated a little bit (though Eazy’s drug dealing/gang history and Cube’s vandalizing meltdown with a baseball bat in his record exec’s office are presented), and doing so doesn’t automatically doom the film. However, completely omitting a key N.W.A. moment like Dr. Dre’s infamous beatdown of rapper/TV host Dee Barnes following her interview with Ice Cube during the height of his feud with the group (which here is basically reduced to an “Epic Rap Battles of History” video) creates quite a big elephant in the room. Gray can throw cop-out excuses of that incident being an “unnecessary side story” all day, but it’s far from a side story. That was fueled by the group’s feud, and responses of “the bitch deserved it” from Eazy-E and MC Ren only intensified it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a problem if Dre’s history of violence against women was at least acknowledged if not expounded on, but it isn’t and portraying the movie version of a young Dre as some pacifistic, non-violent voice of reason is dishonest.
It’s not that I wanted them to senselessly beat Dre upside the head with his past. His blemishes could’ve heightened the feud when emotions were running the hottest, and more importantly, they could’ve been used as motivating points to deepen his character instead of the flat arc he gets here. I mean, The Beatles are my favorite band of all-time, but I still fully expect any movie based on John Lennon to touch on the fact that he was a deadbeat dad to Julian, an abusive husband to Cynthia and Yoko, and an arrogant, egotistical bandmate to Paul, George and Ringo (to be fair, Paul could give John’s ego a run for his money).
Bringing to light the major character flaws of celebrities we look up to is the risk any filmmaker takes in making a biopic. It’s damn if you do, damned if you don’t. Omit or sugarcoat the celebrity’s sins of the past, you’re guilty of whitewashing; shine a light on their flaws, much like Oliver Stone did with legendary rock frontman and self-destructive, abusive drunk Jim Morrison, you’re guilty of demonizing (yes, Stone always brings a sensationalized style to his films, but some of keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s demonizing accusations against Stone were simply out of spite). You can’t win.
Is it really so hard to acknowledge that celebrities are fuck-ups just like the rest of us?
But hey, at least Dre had no problem making Suge Knight and Jerry Heller look like dicks.
In the end, Straight Outta Compton isn’t quite as raw and edgy as it could’ve been, should’ve been and wishes it could be, settling for a more sanitized image of its subjects. Yet while the second act drops the ball and loses its focus by devolving into standard biopic melodrama, director F. Gary Gray introduces the origins of N.W.A. with a tightly directed first half that’s anchored by the strong work from a pitch-perfect cast. Straight Outta Compton had the ingredients to be a great music biopic, ranking with the best even, but ends up being just okay.
I give Straight Outta Compton a C+ (★★½).