Review: Straight Outta Compton
History is written by victorious billionaire rappers in Straight Outta Compton, a film designed to make you think rap group N.W.A were the only successful musical group to ever exist. And rightly so, there’s no doubting the cultural impact of N.W.A’s debut album (where the film takes its name) with its anti-authoritarian message and pathways to juggernaut careers for founding members Ice Cube and Dr Dre (now an actual billionaire after the sale of his company Beats By Dre to Apple). In fact, Ice Cube and Dr Dre serve as producers on Straight Outta Compton, and Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays his father in the film. This helps to explain why Straight Outta Compton feels overworked to glamorise the story of N.W.A with heavy biopic burden driven by insiders to uphold a legacy.
Luckily, director F. Gary Gray recreates the climate of Southern Los Angeles in the late 1980s to perfectly contextualise the birth of N.W.A. Police presence is like a chokehold on the black community and gang members are fearless marauders—in once scene a gangster boards Ice Cube’s school bus to threaten a student with a gun over a prank, a moment of aggression shown to be a foundation moment for the antagonistic persona Ice Cube would adopt as a lyricist and performer. Straight Outta Compton works best when it’s confrontational. Gray uses repetition to show the constant police harassment endured by the members of N.W.A outside their homes, while recording an album and backstage at concerts. The repetitive nature of these incursions reinforces the oppression and makes the pressure release of N.W.A’s music mighty.
Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff balance the N.W.A roster well and establish how Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (Jackson), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown) came into orbit of each other. There’s a pecking order though, with Herman and Berloff choosing to focus the story on the core three: Dr Dre as the composer, Ice Cube as the poet and Eazy-E as the businessman. Very little dirt sticks to the core three and their arcs are focused on their creative paths, often showing them overcoming the odds or, in the case of Eazy-E, succumbing to mistakes of the music business. Once N.W.A’s manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) enters the frame, the pitfalls of the music biopics becoming arduous with the rise, the excess, the rip-offs and fallouts all deployed in predictable fashion. There’s also an amusing detour into illicit territory with the appearance of Death Row Records founder, Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who acts like a comic book villain always puffing on a giant cartoonish cigar.
Probable circumstances are occasionally trounced by unexpected emotional outbursts. Straight Outta Compton deals with young inflated male egos—taken to the extreme with the misogyny and gangster posturing of N.W.A’s lyrics—but Gray doesn’t shy away from showing the group weeping around an emotionally distraught Dr Dre at a rest stop in one of the film’s powerful moments. The reality of each situation is questionable because all biopics embellish the truth for entertainment, especially one produced by all living former members of N.W.A—Dr Dre’s history of violence against women has been erased from the film—but these scenes are as close as the film gets to something authentic.
Straight Outta Compton feels more like a hip-hop fantasy that only uncovers a hint of truth. If anything, it shows the risks of blinkered biopics and the importance of outsiders as collaborators in bringing true tales to the screen.
The Popcorn Junkie