Straight Outta Compton: Crazy Motherfuckers from Around the Way, by David Bax
Gary Gray’s exuberant and enthralling Straight Outta Compton, an ensemble biopic about the members of seminal gangster rap group N.W.A., kicks off with a breathless sequence that not only sets a rollicking pace and tone but establishes an indelible connection between street life in mid-1980’s Compton, CA and the music the characters will go on to make. The scene is Eric “Eazy-E” Wright’s (Jason Mitchell) introduction (each character is introduced like one of the crew in a heist movie). A drug deal turns threatening, then threats are made in return, then the cops show up with a battering ram and, within minutes, the night has turned into a war zone and Eazy is kicking out windows and running across rooftops. At the cut to the title, the audience in my screening applauded.
Straight Outta Compton tracks the members of N.W.A. from a loosely connected group of high schoolers, drug dealers and nightclub DJs through the making and release of their earth-shaking debut album, into the solo successes and struggles that followed and finally culminates with the 1995 death of Eazy. At times, Gray and his producers (including Ice Cube and Dr. Dre themselves) may insist on versions of events that suit them best and the film may occasionally reveal insights it may not have intended but the story’s dedication to depicting its characters as the product of the titular city provides a through-line for a fun, fast-paced and engrossing biopic.
After Eazy’s introduction, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) are next. With Dre, we get some classic, “social problem film” melodrama, but infused with enough honesty of purpose to keep it from getting bogged down in familiarity. As the oldest son of a relatively young single mother, he feels torn between his artistic drive and his duties to provide economically for his household and be a father figure to his younger brother. Yet the best use of the character intro format – and the key to the film’s most potent motif – comes when we meet Ice Cube. On the bus home from high school, he witnesses another student’s encounter with a gang member. A few scenes later, he’s pushed down onto the hood of a cop car and searched just for having stepped out the front door of a friend’s house at an inopportune time. With commendable economy, Gray shows in these two scenes how harrowing and infuriating life can be for a young black man, regardless of his involvement or lack thereof in criminal activity. So, when we first see Cube perform, rapping about gang and prison life, we understand it not as posturing but as a creative mind processing his experiences. We see this cause and effect repeated when harassment by the Torrance police during the recording of Straight Outta Compton the album leads directly to the group’s most famous and important song, “Fuck Tha Police.” In effect, it’s less a simplistic organization of events and more an illustration of how gangster rap was born and how it found its initial audience of people who had gone through the same thing.
It’s fitting that the most entertaining character introductions are those of Eazy and Cube because Mitchell and Jackson give by far the most comfortable and accomplished performances of the core group. They’re also the funniest. Cube’s description of a threat from a gangster as a “motivational speech” and Eazy’s laidback smarm even when pointing a gun at someone get more laughs from the actors’ delivery alone than anything said by DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), whom the screenplay has clearly designated the comic relief. Yella and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are secondary characters (and, for N.W.A. historians, Arabian Prince is essentially deleted from the group’s history). Yella’s most crucial contribution, actually, is a reaction to the infamous footage of policemen beating Rodney King: “At least we got the motherfuckers on video.” There’s an irony to that line, given what we know about how that trial ended, not to mention all the videotaped instances of police brutality in the subsequent two decades that have gone unpunished. But Gray and the team of screenwriters don’t stop at using the King beating as a poignant time stamp. Rather, it becomes a runner for the second half, a way of keeping its characters connected to the plights that informed their earlier music and to a time when righteous fury propelled every song.
There’s a (perhaps unintentional) irony to seeing these men whose early, authority-baiting ethos was as punk rock as it was hip-hop, watch the King trial unfold on increasingly larger televisions in increasingly larger homes. But not remarking on that sort of thing is the film’s modus operandi. The same could be said for the issues of misogyny and homophobia that crop up. There will no doubt be debates about whether Straight Outta Compton objectifies women or if its characters do but the fact remains that women are barely relevant to the movie beyond fantasy fulfillment or dutiful wife/girlfriend roles. More than that, even, the lack of respect for women is mostly depicted as fun. And when Eazy is diagnosed with HIV, his first response is to protest that he’s not a “faggot.” In all of these cases, Gray refrains from either apologizing or damning, choosing instead a laissez faire approach that says, “This is the way these guys were but I’m not dealing with all that.” Majorly troublesome events like Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes are omitted, possibly and hopefully to be picked up by another filmmaker with fewer connections to the participants.
Your mileage may vary in regards to a two and a half hour glorification of a group of violent, misogynistic men (not to mention Ice Cube’s publicly anti-Semitic remarks, which the film dismisses as quickly as it introduces). But hard-hitting accuracy isn’t Gray’s, Cube’s or Dre’s impetus for telling this story. They’re making a spirited epic about their own pasts that also serves as an argument for the rap music’s cultural legacy and necessity. They stumble a bit in the second half, with a bit too much “spot the reference/cameo” (Friday! Tupac!) but ultimately they succeed in what they set out to do. Straight Outta Compton is an eminently watchable movie with a point of view. Or, one could say, with an attitude.