NOW THAT THE HOSANNAS, jeremiads, and most of the money have rolled in, let’s start with the music. The heroes of Straight Outta Compton — a mostly enjoyable, sometimes shaky, musical–biopic — are the three main members of N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes): Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. (DJ Yella and MC Ren are also in the group but don’t merit much screen time.) The best of N.W.A.’s music is among the best of its kind. Indeed, they helped invent the kind, so-called “gangsta rap.” Their relation to their own times (late-1980s, early-1990s Los Angeles), as well as to times today, is resonant. When they broke up after a short tenure that was long on impact, N.W.A. reigned as the most important hip-hop group ever to come from the West Coast. They’ve yet to relinquish that distinction.
Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed the dopehead haze of Friday in 1995, starts Straight Outta Compton with three vignettes introducing each of its heroes. The movie opens on a drug deal about to go bad. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is the most “street” of the three, unafraid and pugnacious, even with guns pointed at him. A frenetic scene follows in which Eazy does an old-school sort of parkour over Compton’s nighttime rooftops and fences, darting from cops who bust in like they’re looking for bin Laden. An egregious pun presents itself: Eazy’s hip to the cops, and he hops away. Hip-hop’s kineticism is embodied here in a fitting beginning for a movie named for an album, which begins with one of the most kinetic tracks ever made.
From Eazy escaping apprehension, we move to Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). He is lying on a mosaic of music: LPs by Roy Ayers, Funkadelic, and Zapp. Fanned-out beneath this blissed-out fanboy, the album covers are a peacock’s tail of stellar taste. The young Dre, a groove savant, wears headphones and is settled deep in the cut. That prophetic pair of not-yet-“beats-by-Dre” over his ears represents a release from the harsh noise of the outside world, while also suggesting the sound of the billions of dollars to come. When we meet him, though, Dre is still living with his mother, who is not impressed with the chump change that her son picks up playing records. She thinks that he should get a real job.
Cut to Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son) on the school bus, scratching ink into his rhyme book. Cube is being bussed back with his fellow black students from a fancy school awash with preppies on the lawn. His real home is exemplified by the angry O.G. who stops and boards the bus after a couple of kids flash the wrong gang signs from the window. In addition to being good material for Cube, the burgeoning poet, the menacing man, sporting a Blood red bandana, is a hulking reminder of the reasons for Cube to work harder on those raps. The scene is staged but spot-on. Ice Cube was, after all, barely out of short pants when he got with N.W.A., one of hip-hop’s finest precocities.
At the time that the movie begins, the West Coast had little to no standing in the world of rap music, insofar as the world of rap music was New York City and environs. Los Angeles was dominated by an electro sound, in which Dre played a part as a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, a group that, at its best, made drum-machine-and-synthesizer-based dance music. There was also a good deal of fast, precise scratching, as when Dre — a “doctor,” remember — performs “surgery” on a song of that name, cutting with a stylus instead of a scalpel. In fact, there was a whole local scene of other like-minded musicians: the collective Uncle Jamm’s Army, Arabian Prince, Egyptian Lover, and even Bobby Jimmy, the Weird Al of rap, whose “Roaches” (1986) featured rapping critters in its video.
Straight Outta Compton is motivated to show that this music scene was largely corny, the better to suggest that Dre made a brave leap when he went in a different direction. And it’s true that those polyester suits don’t hold up well. New York never cottoned to L.A. electro, but it was big in the South, where it had a lot in common with Miami Bass. The two regional styles, however, were seen as largely unsophisticated when compared to East Coast rap. Lorded over by such stalwarts as KRS-One, Chuck D, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Run-DMC, the East expected lyrics — real lyrics — not robot sounds or sex chants.
The West wasn’t all for naught before N.W.A., though. Toddy Tee recorded a crucial 12-inch, “Batterram,” in 1985. Too $hort, “with dirty raps coming out my mouth / and you know damn well what I’m talking about,” was “coming straight from Oakland.” Ice-T of Los Angeles had briefly, almost accidentally, snuck into the mainstream with “Reckless” on the soundtrack to Breakin’ (1984). And his song “6 ’n the morning,” all criminal picaresque, has much in common with the Ice Cube–penned, Dre-produced, Eazy-emceed “Boyz-n-the-Hood.”
At the local level, then, something was brewing. Enter enterprising Eazy-E, who has some money to spend. Dre has the musical chops and convinces Eazy to go in on a record. They convene in a studio, where we find that Ice Cube has written some rhymes about your everyday Compton gangbanger. After some Kangol-wearing New York–lames can’t catch that West Coast flow, the guys figure, “Why not let Eazy try it?” He is, after all, the most gangsta of the group, so into the booth he reluctantly steps. The scene of Dre coaching Eazy on how to rap should become a classic. In general, the early studio scenes are ripe with partnership, friendship, and the invigorating pleasures that youths can take in their own electric talent. You don’t see many scenes like this in movies — young black guys having fun and being creative without the weight of the world bearing down on them, or without their being assholes or acting like violent thugs. Instead, the making of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is a good time had by all.
In addition to that iconic song, N.W.A.’s artistic legacy rests on four others: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Gangsta, Gangsta,” “Fuck Tha Police,” and “Dopeman.” These all appear on their 1988 Straight Outta Compton LP. “Express Yourself,” from the same album, is catchy, it’s true, but in its context, it’s a fake: why should this anthem to self-expression be the only song on the LP without any cussing? It’s an obvious ploy for radio play, and, at any rate, it didn’t take. The better, more scabrous songs made the waves.
Musical biopics tend to depict their subjects as either survivors or martyrs. Straight Outta Compton does both. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the movie’s multimillion-dollar producers, are the survivors. Eazy-E, who died of AIDS in 1995, is the martyr. Treated suspiciously fairly on screen, he was always something of a cipher, an impression that grew as Dre and Cube outpaced him. When he is diagnosed with HIV, the fictionalized Eazy is incredulous: “I’m no faggot,” he explodes. In 1995? Four years after Magic Johnson’s press conference? If the scene is accurate, it’s a masterpiece of willful ignorance. Of course, one feels guilty speaking ill of the dead, and the movie sure doesn’t risk it, no matter what his bandmates said about him in life.
Eazy’s fate remains apt as a cautionary tale given the current apathy regarding HIV. That is not, however, why Straight Outta Compton has been marketed as au courant and “a movie for our time.” As the Universal Pictures press copy has it: “As they spoke the truth that no one had before and exposed life in the hood, their voice ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today.” The movie includes several scenes of vicious cops exerting force, talking smack, pushing everybody around, and the blood boils.
When the members of N.W.A. are forced to the ground and then toyed with as if by brats who tear the legs off spiders just for standing outside the studio in which they are recording, you can see why they made “Fuck Tha Police.” It’s rude, even incendiary, but it makes its point. The song leads to threats from the FBI and a warning from local police before a show in Detroit: play that song and you’re toast. A well-filmed riot ensues. (But were there really so many white people at those shows? I doubt it.) Thus do the authorities turn a protest song — and it is a great American protest song — into a cause célèbre. Now we’re talking about free speech.
Straight Outta Compton and its “movie for our times” marketing are simultaneously significant and opportunistic. But if it intended to tap into the social unrest associated with the #blacklivesmatter movement and the killing of unarmed African Americans, it surely didn’t intend to tap into unrest over the perpetual verbal and physical violence against women. As for verbal abuse, the group has no shelter on that score — if the brunt of their songs aren’t misogynist, then the word is devoid of meaning. And, as everybody who was listening to N.W.A. back in the day knew, long before he had earned legendary status, Dr. Dre beat up the music journalist Dee Barnes. (Incidentally, F. Gary Gray once served as cameraman for Barnes.) I lived in the boonies and I knew about it — I was 14 or 15, and we didn’t have MTV or, of course, the internet yet — so it clearly wasn’t some secret. Nobody stopped listening to N.W.A. because of it, myself included.
Days after the movie’s premiere, Gawker hosted Barnes’s eloquent essay about how she was hit, choked, and then blackballed from the rap industry. All she got out of that beatdown — aside from unshakeable migraines, a thwarted career, and the proverbial “undisclosed settlement” (she discloses it; it’s not that much) — was a mention in a Dre-produced song by Eminem, who, as usual, thinks that hurt women are funny. At the time, Eazy and Ren said that she got what was coming to her, and a lot of people agreed. Now that the movie is out, and after a bit of an internet stink, Dre said that he was sorry he “hurt those women.” (Plural noted). Ice Cube, on the other hand, is frankly intransigent when it comes to saying “bitch,” but then he’s never been known actually to beat anybody.
Some say that the acts of pain perpetrated against the women in Dre’s life should have been depicted in the film, but that doesn’t make much dramatic sense. Those incidents didn’t impact Dre’s growing success or that of N.W.A. Either way, common sense says that you don’t commission an altarpiece and insist on an unbiased representation. This is not just a biopic, but a vanity project, and that’s not Monopoly money behind it. In its own way, the movie is honest about how the group saw women. By its end, each of the three principals has a wife or something like it. One of them even plays a role in the plot — she took accounting in college and uncovers fiscal shenanigans on Eazy’s behalf — but it’s hard to remember their names. As if to remind us that N.W.A. matured in a culture of top–down misogyny, there’s that opening scene again. The cops come in with a batterram, a tank that knocks down doors. (The LAPD was avant-garde when it came to militarization.) It slams right into a woman’s chest, clearly killing her, but she’s just another bitch sent flying in the angel/ho cosmology.
After all, the real relationships in Straight Outta Compton are between men. The friendships are deep, which makes the inevitable dissensions sink in. The group’s trajectory is a narrative cliché: they start from the bottom, get more and more famous, and money gets in the way. The source of the money problems is a manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). He’s a stock villain, a shifty Jew, who also happens to have genuine principles, seemingly viewing the guys of N.W.A. as his friends, cash cows though they be. Perhaps surprisingly, the portrait of Heller and Eazy’s relationship makes this movie. It’s more ambivalent, loving, and rich than anyone could have expected. Where Eazy is honest, sweetly sardonic, and devoted, Heller is a shield, a mentor, and a surrogate father who lets him down in the end.
Under Heller’s management, the members of N.W.A. get incredibly famous, which is a manager’s job. Except for Eazy, they don’t get incredibly paid, which is a manager’s problem. Ice Cube is the first to defect, and eventually Dre gets fed up, too. Suge Knight, cofounder of Death Row Records, has been looming in the background and now, in a red zoot suit, he sweeps in like Lucifer. He first leeches onto The D.O.C., a rapper affiliated with N.W.A.’s label. This subplot will mean nothing to most people, and is included in the film as a pretext to build up Suge’s treachery. The first, Dre-produced D.O.C. album is an underheard gem, though — he’s better than a cheap plot point. Dre sets up shop in Suge’s studio. This period marks the apotheosis of gangsta rap, as Snoop Dogg (the natural) and Tupac (the prophet) come on the scene.
Straight Outta Compton catches the sadomasochistic aspect of the genre. Suge is a dungeon master surrounded by evil cronies who mimic him in being big and bad. It’s pushed to the edge of parody when Dre steps from the studio to find a handsome, buff man almost naked, down on all fours, being forced to grovel like a cur while guns are waved around. Everybody finds this incredibly funny except for Dre. As for the masochism, try living for a week on blunts and malt liquor and tell me how you feel: this seems to be the Death Row diet.
“Gangsta rap” is a complex term, but as far as fully dispensing with it, that cat’s out of the bag. It’s here to stay and is generically useful as far as it goes. Like that other rap epithet, the difference here between –ers and –az is vast. In laying the foundation for “gangsta rap,” did N.W.A. influence a bunch of dismal art? Sure, why not. “Oh, it’s all bitches and hoes and money and cars.” It’s not, of course, all about that at all. But let’s say that it was. Recall what G. K. Chesterton said: “It is too often forgotten that just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.” In gangsta rap, one often finds the quintessential bad man — as in that “bad man Stagolee” — reciting a bad poem. “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good?” It depends. There are astonishing songs in the genre.
Boneheaded moves are made in this movie. The foreshadowing is so heavy that you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. We know, for instance, within 30 minutes that Dre’s sweet younger brother is going to die because he wants to tag along with big bro on tour but is rebuffed. But when the group huddles up around their broken comrade after he hears the tragic news, the loss feels real. Its veracity is not, however, helped along by Eazy placing his hand on those of the others and saying, “We’ll always be brothers.” You know right away that the very words will be hurled back in his face, like a thrown drink that took half an hour to mix. Then there are the portentous, preposterous moments when a character — first Eazy, then Suge, then Dre — names his respective music label. Time slows down, and the pregnant words are uttered: Ruthless, Death Row, Aftermath. What could possibly go wrong?
Biopics aren’t really where you go for brilliant moviemaking, though, especially musical versions. The genius is already in the music, and to try to match that genius on film is somewhat redundant, if not impossible. From the innumerable lives of the great composers, to three tries at Stephen Foster, to the tortured jazz legends and the dead rock and rollers, they all end up bio-pictured. So far, hip-hop has Notorious (2009) and will soon see the long-gestating Tupac picture.
For now, though, we’ve got Straight Outta Compton, a movie that, despite its compromised provenance, deserves to have been made, not only for N.W.A.’s great songs and compelling story, but for how much fine art Dr. Dre and Ice Cube kept making after the group’s demise. So “their voice ignited a social revolution that is still reverberating today” — is that the takeaway? Nope, that’s just the best, most potent selling point appropriate to the moment. But N.W.A. was never meant to be “appropriate.” They didn’t make a revolution. They just made music that makes people happy, happy and angry, thoughtful and stupid, that makes them frown and smile, nod their heads, rap along, stop and think. It makes people talk and that’s something.