STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON Movie Review – Hip-Hop History Comes Alive
History, including history of the music kind, isn’t just written by the victors. It’s also written by the rights-holders. They can shape, mold, and otherwise sanitize their personal histories (or the opposite, if they’re so inclined). With O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Andrew “Dr. Dre” Young, and Eric “Easy-E” Wright‘s widow as executive producers (a/k/a rights-holders), it shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise that the long mooted, F. Gary Gray-directed N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, simultaneously de-mythologizes and re-mythologizes the central trio’s contributions to rap music and hip-hop culture. There’s little doubt, of course, that the “reality rap” (“gangsta rap”) Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy-E — with, apparently marginal contributions from DJ Yella and MC Ren — didn’t just change the direction of rap music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, reality/gangsta rap completely transformed rap music, refocusing and recontextualizing rap music to reflect and memorialize the crime, violence and poverty of the African-American inner-city experience.
There’s also no doubt that the lethal combination of Ice Cube’s street-level lyrics and Dr. Dre’s propulsive beats contributed heavily to N.W.A.’s (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) all-too-brief success. If Straight Outta Compton reflects historical reality — a question worth investigating outside the confines of a film review — N.W.A. was undone by the predictably toxic cocktail of ego, ambition, and excess. As depicted in Straight Outta Compton, there’s no shortage of ego and ambition when we first meet Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). Ice Cube’s still in high school, a daily witness to crime, violence, and police brutality while the forward-looking Dr. Dre, a part-time DJ, sees and more importantly, hears entirely new sonic soundscapes he wants to put to vinyl. It takes the third member of the central trio, Easy-E (Jason Mitchell), a low-level drug dealer, to front the recording of their first record.
N.W.A.’s first record (they weren’t called N.W.A. yet, but for all intents and purposes they were) brings them to the attention of their once and future manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). A walking, talking stereotype — and borderline offensive, anti-Semitic caricature — Heller sees nothing but dollar bills (yo) when he hears their first recording. A master manipulator, he convinces Easy E to let him handle N.W.A.’s finances, up to and including the contracts everyone but Ice Cube signs. Suspicious of Heller, Ice Cube’s refusal to sign an onerous, burdensome contract near the end of their first tour leads to his departure. N.W.A. continues on with Dr. Dre taking on full “hip-hop visionary” duties while Easy-E overindulges in the hedonistic excesses typically available to rock stars and celebrities. Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s serviceable script leans heavily on foreshadowing Easy-E’s eventual fate (he died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 31).
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t end with Ice Cube’s departure or even N.W.A.’s effective dissolution after Dr. Dre signs on with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and the founding of Death Row Records, a decision Straight Outta Compton depicts as a serious error in Dre’s judgment, but also follows Ice Cube’s subsequent music career (pre-acting), and Easy-E’s financial problems and failing health. Spread out over a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Straight Outta Compton suffers from major sprawl, attempting to hit Cube, Dre, and E’s high and low points typical of musical biopics before time runs out on E. Easy-E’s passing, however, gives Straight Outta Compton the equivalent of a natural ending, though not before moviegoers receive an Ice Cube and Dr. Dre-mandated montage of their careers over the last two decades, including the sale of Dre’s company for several billion dollars. Nothing, it seems, succeeds like success.
With the focus resolutely on Cube, Dre, and E, Straight Outta Compton has little room or running time for DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) or MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), N.W.A.’s other two members. Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) make the equivalent of cameo appearances. Despite his limited time onscreen, Stanfield, a standout in Short Term 12 and Selma, captures Snoop’s languid drawl to near perfection. Rose barely makes an impression, but that’s less his fault than the brief time he spends onscreen (in a sound booth). Even more unsurprisingly, Straight Outta Compton has little to no room for female characters. They’re limited to hastily sketched in maternal figures (Dre’s mother), groupies and hangers-on, and potential girlfriends and wives. That’s a step up, however, from the rampant misogyny prevalent in N.W.A.’s songs (here given zero screen time), perhaps a sign of the changing (commercial) times. N.W.A.’s anti-authoritarian, anti-police brutality tracks, including their controversial anthem, “F*ck the Police,” receive ample screen time. Unfortunately, they’re as necessary today as they were almost three decades ago.