Fun fact: as a kid, I heard CB4’s “Straight Outta Locash” loooong before I ever listened to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” In fact, I still have Gusto’s entire first verse bouncing around my memory, crowding out lesser important items like phone numbers and the names of my children. But knowledge of N.W.A. lyrics? Not so much.
Make of that what you will.
What I’m driving at is that, somehow, some way, for a hip-hop obsessed twelve-year-old in the early Nineties, I miraculously stayed mostly oblivious to the whole West Coast gangsta rap scene. I learned about N.W.A. through the parodies of it—CB4 and Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat, mostly—so I was never quite able to grasp the sense of awe others felt towards the world’s most dangerous supergroup. To me they were blowhards and posers, guys who thought being a shitheel in their old lives legitimized the excesses of their new ones. And, to be honest, I haven’t entirely shaken this perception. Sure, these days I understand the cultural significance of the album Straight Outta Compton, how it was an unexpected, necessary explosion of anger and social critique that, thanks to its bleak imagery and unmitigated rage, managed to do the two things revolutionary albums are supposed to do: titillate teenagers and scare the bejeezus out of old white people. But I think the tough-guy personas the members of N.W.A. built around themselves insulates them from the flash-in-the-pan reality of their group and the legacy they’ve created. Where they are now does nothing to dissuade me.
Of course, my opinion was reinforced by the fact that, before watching Straight Outta Compton, I saw a preview for Ride Along 2, where Ice Cube plays a cop. And it’s not like this role is a fluke; it will have been the fourth time he’s played a cop in four years. So where does Cube’s morphing from revolutionary voice of the oppressed into Hollywood’s go-to comedic angry black man fit into the against-the-system, world’s-most-dangerous-band portrait F. Gary Gray’s highly dramatized history puts forth? Oh, that’s right. Such a question could be construed as difficult, and if there’s one thing Straight Outta Compton refuses to do, it’s pose questions that might go against the narrative producers Cube, Dr. Dre, and Tomica Woods-Wright (Easy-E’s widow) want to establish. The film downplays any act that can’t be easily explained away as transgressions of youth or misunderstandings by the establishment. It’s a softball look at hard young men, a movie that uses its grim trappings as a pretense of profundity rather than an in-depth look into the culture that gave birth to N.W.A. and became irrevocably altered by their popularity. It’s a bullet-point list of the group’s accomplishments.
In other words, it’s your standard biopic.
Still, once you make peace with the film being more of a vague approximation than anything approaching verisimilitude, there’s some solid drama to be found. Especially in the first hour or so—the group’s rise from Compton kids to bonafide superstars is by far the strongest section of the movie, the only part of Straight Outta Compton that attempts commentary on the brutal conditions in South Central and the near-police state under which its citizens lived. Of course, things grind to a halt during N.W.A.’s first nationwide tour, thanks to the painfully tone-deaf hotel scene (“Bye Felicia” might be the most squirm-inducing moment in the movie) and a laughably histrionic moment where the group mourns the death of Dre’s brother. In fact, this scene provides a convenient line of demarcation between when the movie is the compelling tale of rising musicians and when it’s a drawn-out story of pissing matches between millionaires. Guess which plays better.
Fortunately, Gray draws some amazing performances from his young cast. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Jason Mitchell—as Cube and Easy-E, respectively—are the highlights of the film, turning in superior work, especially considering neither have come close to lead-role status before. Jackson, as his real-life father, gives Cube a necessary aura of belligerence, a frown-and-sneer outlook that captures the rapper’s feeling that all is not right with his world, socially nor professionally. And Mitchell supplies Easy-E with a shocking amount of humanity, playing the group’s founder and de facto leader as a wounded, complex antihero, a young man caught in a tug-of-war between street honor and his potential as a savvy businessman. Granted, the movie makes a mess of E’s final years—he was never destitute, and sold nearly 3 million copies of the deliriously titled It’s On (
Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, his album-length tirade against Dre’s The Chronic, not to mention producing Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s first two smash albums—so the last half hour tens to drag down Mitchell’s performance due to the overwrought theatrics required by the script. But he’s still a strong actor, and hopefully we’ll see him often in the future.
Oh yeah—Paul Giamatti once again gives a wonderful performance underneath a horrific wig. Between this movie and Love & Mercy, he’s got two chances for the rare simultaneous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Razzie Award for Most Fucking Atrocious Head of Hair. He’s got my vote.
In the end, though, Straight Outta Compton fails to do much more than serve as a 150-minute tour in self-aggrandizement. (But what do you expect, really, from a movie whose promotional material included a short film of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube interviewing people about how great N.W.A. was.) I can’t help but find it disheartening that a movie where characters constantly talk about the “realness” of their art contains so much distortion and outright falsehood. The three big takeaways from the film seem to be A) despite their rough upbringing, N.W.A. really was a bunch of good guys, B) police are jerks, and C) women are either whores or mothers. That’s not truth—that’s generalization and misrepresentation gussied up as thought-quelling mass-market entertainment.
Like I said, it’s your standard biopic.