Straight Outta Compton (2015)
In 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.
It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.
Nobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…
Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.
As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.
Straight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.
While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.
Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.
Nate’s Grade: B-