The authorised biography: N.W.A. and Straight Outta Compton
After a synergistic marketing assault that included a manufactured meme and the first Dr. Dre album in 16 years, the long-awaited N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, is finally here. It charts the rise and fall of the influential group — which consisted of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) — from their formation in Compton, Los Angeles in 1986 to the death of Eazy-E in 1995. The film also acts as a partial history of gangsta rap, west coast hip hop, and the L.A. riots, which were born from the racial tension surrounding the Rodney King trial and soundtracked by the N.W.A protest song, “Fuck Tha Police”.
Director F. Gary Gray's filmmaking career began in 1993 with the music video for Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day”. Two years later his debut film, the Ice Cube vehicle Friday, hit theatres, and he continued to make music videos with both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Gray is intimate with the duo, making him the perfect accomplice in carrying out the act of self-mythology that is Straight Outta Compton. There are visual flourishes from the director throughout — his camera floats around each of the three principles like they’re Grand Theft Auto protagonists (N.W.A. begat San Andreas begat Straight Outta Compton) — but nothing too notable. Much like the actors, Gray mostly serves as a surrogate for producers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eazy-E.
It’s most interesting to analyse Straight Outta Compton on this metatextual level. As with any biopic details are smoothed out along the way, but there isn’t a single change made that doesn’t show the three principles in a positive light. If you listen really closely, you can almost hear the back-and-forths that took place over every narrative decision in the film. The reconstruction of the three core members of the group is prominent throughout (DJ Yella and MC Ren are marginalised but never disrespected; Arabian Prince is barely acknowledged), but no act is as egregious as the film’s treatment of Dr. Dre.
The omission of Dr Dre’s very public history of violence against women (which Dre himself acknowledged in a long overdue apology to The New York Times) has been discussed at length in the lead-up to the film’s release, but the film goes beyond erasure, completely transforming the character of Andre Young. The Dr. Dre on film is a tender, put-upon artist, focused solely on his craft; while Eazy and Cube bicker over money with their manager Jerry Heller, Dre’s only concern is his music. He is repeatedly shown leaving money on the table in the pursuit of artistic excellence; according to Straight Outta Compton, the $3 billion sale of Beats Electronics to Apple in 2013 couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
It doesn’t help that Corey Hawkins’ performance as Dre is the weakest of the three leads. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. isn’t much better as Ice Cube, but it’s fascinating to watch the Son of Cube play his father on screen. The Ice Cube of Straight Outta Compton is a hero, but he isn’t as sanitised as Dre, and all cynicism felt towards any distortion of fact is squashed by the undeniable sweetness of watching a son lovingly reenact his father’s achievements for an audience; this coupled with the bizarre sight of watching Jackson, Jr. play house with a fictionalised version of his mother (thankfully/unfortunately, there are no sex scenes).
The film’s only breakout performance is Jason Mitchell, who is electric as Eazy-E. Unlike Hawkins and Jackson, Jr., Mitchell has the advantage of not having the real Eazy leering over his shoulder. The only fully realised character in the group, Mitchell’s Eazy is the heart and soul of the film, bringing the relevant humour, pathos, and/or intensity to each scene. It’s fitting that he is given the most screen time opposite the film’s only veteran actor, Paul Giamatti, who goes full Giamatti as the group’s corrupt manager Jerry Heller.
There are other missteps along the way. Half the dialogue sounds like the table of contents from the N.W.A. Wikipedia page, with subheadings dropped into conversation (“How’s FRIDAY coming along?”; “Damn, Eric, why you gotta be so RUTHLESS?”).
The film’s B-plot centres around the civil unrest surrounding the Rodney King trial, and as tensions swell the film seems to be taking a turn, until suddenly it isn’t. We cut away from the outbreak of the L.A. Riots to Eazy smoking weed some time in the future; the riots are never mentioned again. In fact, things get pretty messy after Eazy’s passing, as the film stumbles through an epilogue into a credits sequence that acts as a clip show for all the group’s achievements (many of which were just dramatised).
Despite striking a false note at times, Straight Outta Compton is buoyed by the level of pride and humanity brought to the film by all involved. As a historical document, every inconsistency is as fascinating as every truth, and the concert footage and cameos from every notable artist of the era, from Snoop Dogg to Tupac, are undeniably fun. The filmmakers take care to strike a balance between their own myth making and the satisfaction of their fans and public; this is one instance where fan service is actually a plus. Even with its all-business approach, Straight Outta Compton is a great time at the movies.