For once, the bluster of a movie tagline is actually on-point. The trailer for Straight Outta Compton pegs it as “the movie of our time,” and it’s easy to forget one is watching a film and not the news as director F. Gary Gray unspools a panoply of poverty, racism, and police violence on the big screen. The names Trayvon, Mike, Renisha, and Eric are never far from the viewer’s mind as we see Dr. Dre and Eazy-E face down racist cops in late 1980s LA.
This is coming from a viewer who hates biopics—music biopics in particular. Biopics tend to be like sports films and romantic comedies, where the film’s narrative is straightjacketed to a hackneyed sequence of successes and failures that ultimately end in triumph. (Ray and Walk the Line, I’m looking at you.) Todd Haynes’s gonzo Bob Dylan film I’m Not There remains the gold standard for dealing with a larger-than-life personality without succumbing to a vortex of clichés; this year’s Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy also manages to avoid many of the same narrative temptations, perhaps because it shared a screenwriter with the Dylan biopic.
One of the great advantages of Straight Outta Compton is that it’s not solely focused on the brilliance and foibles of a singular genius. Instead, the film can trace the tensions between an ensemble of creative forces—Dre, Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella—who each possess different attitudes and talents. The movie opens with a scene in which a shrimpy little Eazy tries to sell drugs in the ramshackle Compton den of some hardcore dealers, fitted out with forties, assault weapons, and all the accouterments of the true crack specialist of the late 80s. Staged with the explosive power of Gary’s direction, a tense confrontation between Eazy and his customers goes haywire when the LAPD come plowing down the road, literally demolishing the front of the dealers’ house with a tank’s battering ram. It seems highly likely that US commandos treated Bin Laden’s compound with greater respect and care.
In any case, Eazy scrambles away, climbing out of a window and scurrying across the rooftops of Compton homes to save himself from the clutches of the LAPD and a possible mandatory minimum sentence. Thus, we are brought into the world of NWA’s origins. It’s important that we begin with Eazy’s small-time drug trade, since so much of the rest of the movie is consumed by the life trajectory of the soberer and more responsible Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (who was studying architectural drafting while Eazy was slinging crack). By beginning with Eazy, F. Gary Gray is able to establish the stakes for the entire movie.
We soon move to a very Brian-Wilson-esque Dre, listening to old soul records and daydreaming beats on the floor of his mother’s house. We see Cube as the poet scribbling rhymes in his notebook on the school bus, as other kids court trouble with the Crips and the Bloods. Very quickly, the sound genius Dre and the lyrical genius Cube begin to put together the outlines of something that will become great. Local club owners want to play goopy, gauzy R&B jams that they think partygoers want to hear, not “that hard shit.” But the masses respond to Cube’s frank narration of Compton life and Dre’s hard-hitting beats. A far-seeing Dre talks Eazy into investing some of his drug money into the project, and thus, Ruthless Records is born.
If all of this sounds slightly sarcastic, it’s not meant to be. It would be very easy to caricature the melodramatic tone and predictable plot beats of Straight Outta Compton as so much self-serious hero worship, but it has a genuine power of its own, owing to three clear factors: the nimble and compelling performances, particularly Jason Mitchell’s witty, vulnerable, avaricious Eazy; Gray’s powerfully compelling direction; and the inescapable resonance of the film’s depiction of institutional racism and police brutality.
In many ways, the film is a classic American rags-to-riches story of improbable success and unique talent—though it seldom flinches from showing the dark side of American capitalism. Eazy imagines himself as the new Berry Gordy, but his fate is to be a rapper, not a businessman. (His successors would have a better grip on such matters; as the canny Jay-Z put it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a fucking business, man.”) The group gets together, taps a nerve among African-American youth in LA, and finds a white Svengali who is shrewd enough to see the gravy train that is NWA, even if other record label and radio types are constitutionally allergic to the aggression and profanity of the rappers’ music. (Notably, a younger white exec is open-minded enough to see something he can exploit too.)
Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) becomes a father figure to the group, steering them into distribution deals and major venues, fending off threats from the FBI and local cops, and (surprise) managing their affairs to his own benefit. The rest of the plot unfolds as the members of NWA doubt whether Eazy and Jerry are giving them a fair shake, and malevolent forces such as Suge Knight (who once drove over a friend of mine with his car) enter the picture.
Those familiar with the stories of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Bone Thugs will know the rest. But the fulcrum of the film really is the heyday of NWA in the early 1990s, when gangsta rap was seen to be a force to be reckoned with—by parents, police, politicians, talk show hosts, and seemingly everyone else. It captures a moment not unlike the powderkeg of urban America in 1965 or 1967, when neighborhoods such as Watts erupted in rage over poverty and policy brutality, or 2014, when black people and their allies filled the streets of Ferguson, Atlanta, and Baltimore to voice outrage over the continued dehumanization of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement and other state institutions.
Straight Outta Compton evokes the rawness of emotion in the early 1990s that is easily forgotten—the anger and frustration of black communities, as well as the fear and anxieties of whites who protested NWA shows and (implausibly) believed there would be riots if OJ Simpson was convicted in 1995 or Barack Obama lost the election in 2008. These are deep, unspoken fears and frustrations on all sides, even if some are more credible and realistic than others. Indeed, NWA became a vehicle for the suppressed anger of black America amid the failure of the War on Poverty and Reagan’s subsequent war on urban communities, saying things that weren’t supposed to be said and making the white establishment feel at turns uncomfortable and outraged. (“Fuck Tha Police? How dare they? Next thing you know ‘they’ are going to be rapping about killing cops…”)
In retrospect, it’s surprising to hear how similar Ice Cube’s confrontational lyrics and Dre’s dense, driving beats were to the music of Public Enemy, which had a more explicitly political bent but never broke through to the mainstream in quite the same way. Perhaps PE were the Pixies to NWA’s Nirvana, breaking out just a moment too soon. To listen to NWA now is to remember a time before the schism between “gangsta” and “conscious” hip-hop, when it was still possible to advance a controversial message in a song that was both profoundly profane and profoundly danceable. But maybe the line was never as clear as people thought in the 1990s. “Fuck Tha Police” is basically the most punk rock song of all time—far more than hip gestures like “Anarchy in the UK.” NWA were talking about real anarchy in the streets of LA.
Indeed, where the film falls short is in terms of following through on these political commitments in the end. The LA Riots (or Rebellion, depending on your preference) serve as ideological window-dressing in the movie, somehow influencing Dre and Cube in a way that is never made particularly clear. The film is absorbing and dynamic in its first half, but the need to tie up plot threads and burnish the image of its producers becomes a bit of a narrative drag. Straight Outta Compton is too much invested in portraying Dr. Dre as a heroic figure—at first he’s a sincere naïf, trusting his friends too much; he’s a genius producer; he’s also an industrious capitalist who knows better than to indulge in the drugs, drinking, and fighting that absorb lesser humans. The film also sets up Ice Cube as a sober family man, typing away the script for Friday on his little Compaq laptop and plotting his career for years to come. (Are We There Yet?, anybody?)
Dre and Cube produced the movie, so it’s no surprise that they made sure it gave the best read on themselves. Certainly, the movie does not tarnish the image of Dre by portraying any of the violence that he perpetrated on women such as Dee Barnes and Michel’le while dreaming up all those magnificent synths and beats. As a result, unfortunately, the producers’ characters are not as interesting as Eazy, who is permitted to have some flaws. The film ends with a gaggingly gratuitous coda, in which the great deeds of Dre are chronicled (Eminem! Beats by Dre!) during the credits for no reason whatsoever.
But the truth is the truth. Dre and Cube were far more successful than almost any of their contemporaries, and perhaps they were able to achieve this because they married more raw talent to a shrewder approach to managing their careers. Tellingly, both their families are portrayed implicitly as more respectable and middle-class than those of their peers—whose parents are, in fact, nowhere to be seen. Dre’s mom was a working-class striver who scabbed her hands and knees trying to crawl out of poverty for the sake of her two sons, and she was determined to see him and his brother “make it” in a respectable way. She doesn’t get it that Dre can make a living by spinning records, but he has a vision as an artist and entrepreneur.
Cube’s parents are less visible, but they appear in one scene as homeowners, his father dressed in what looks like a custodian or factory worker’s uniform. In the end, the more bourgeois and responsible heroes survive in the end, and poor Eazy, the one true “gangsta” in the bunch, is cut short. That history is, of course, not made up, but the way the filmmakers choose to tell it says a lot about American culture—even in a movie about “the world’s most dangerous group.”