Making a biopic about subjects who are (mostly) still alive is always a strange proposition, especially if those subjects are actively involved in the film. Such is the case with Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s telling of the brief but important career of seminal gangster rap group the NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). With founding members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube involved as producers – along with Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of founding member Eazy E – this was never going to be a warts-and-all expose but nonetheless, with the group’s music is as relevant as ever this is the perfect time to revisit their story and Gray’s film is a vital, searing and immensely entertaining experience.
Beginning in Compton in the late 1980’s, the film’s brisk first hour charts the formation of the group, bringing together Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, Ice Cube’s real son), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr). Dre and Yella provide the beats, Ren and Cube the lyrics and Eazy E – a genuine drug dealer before joining the group – lends an authentic voice to the whole endeavour. In this first section of the film, Gray – a frequent collaborator with the NWA – effectively establishes Compton at that time, particularly the political environment as the young black men frequently clash with the police during their ‘war on drugs’.
When we see Dre, Cube and co harassed by police, shoved face down on the pavement for doing little more than being young and black in the wrong place at the wrong time, anyone familiar with the NWA will see where this is heading. The script – by Jonathan Hermann and Andrea Berloff – is littered with moments that are a little too on those nose. One early scene sees Dre’s mother chastise him for trying to make a career in music, telling him he’ll never make any money as a DJ; considering Dre recently became the first billionaire in hip hop, she may as well have winked at the camera.
Nonetheless, this first hour is exhilarating, especially any time the music is involved. When Dre has to coach Eazy E through the opening line of his class track Boyz N Tha Hood, there’s a giddy excitement when he finally nails the iconic “Cruisin’ down the street in my ’64”. Similarly when the group defiantly launch into Fuck Tha Police at a Detroit concert after a warning from local authorities not to, it’s a goosebump-inducing moment that reminds you of the raw power of the group’s music.
These are the moments when the film is at its most potent, the powerful, angry music that was a huge middle finger to a system that didn’t want to hear what people from this community had to say. The NWA – along with controversial manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) – became a phenomenon, if not inventing gangster rap then at least catapulting it into the mainstream. Considering the issues that still exist between the police and the black community in the US – and of course the Rodney King incident and the ensuing LA riots that are depicted in the film – the group’s music was sadly, inevitably prescient.
The second half of the film sees the downfall of the group as infighting and jealousy begin to tear them apart. Ice Cube leaves the group, frightening bouncer-turned-record-exec Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) arrives on the scene to muddy the waters and eventually poach Dre and Eazy E begins to succumb to the AIDS-related illness that eventually ended his life at the age of 31. A lot is packed into the second half – including a host of big-name cameos that feel a little like box-ticking, though Keith Stanfield makes an excellent Snoop Dogg – and as such it feels more muddled and less outright enthralling as the preceding hour.
The most troublesome aspect of the film is what’s left out rather than what’s included. Of course any biopic tries to get to the heart of its subjects rather than a straight up telling of every single event but the way in which the central trio are portrayed as heroes might have been different had they not been so heavily involved in production. Dre in particular gets off the hook – there is nothing here about his infamous attack on TV presenter Dee Barnes nor his relationship and subsequent abuse of rapper Michel’le. That said, women in general here are treated about as well as they are in any given NWA song, with only Woods-Wright (Carra Patterson) and Ice Cube’s wife Kim (Alexandra Shipp) getting anything beyond a bikini-clad walk on.
At its best however, Straight Outta Compton feels like a companion piece to genre classics like Boyz N Tha Hood, Menace II Society and Friday while telling the story of one of music’s most thrilling acts. Until he has to wrap things up and the weight of story begins to weigh on the film, Gray manages to match the sense of unpredictability and danger that made the NWA such a compelling group with three pitch perfect performances at its centre; Hawkins, Mitchell and particularly Jackson all have the charisma and chops to make it big.