Silver Screen: Straight Outta Compton ****
Straight Outta Compton, the livewire biopic about gangsta rap pioneers NWA, springs straight off the screen in its crackerjack opening minutes, where director F. Gary Gray immediately establishes the heady blend of guns, drugs, and music.
In the opening shot, young hustler Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell), soon to be known as Easy-E, pops the subwoofer out of a speaker to reveal a baggie of cocaine he’s planning to sell to a crew of shady associates in a cramped, claustrophobic Compton drug den. His tense exchange with the crew inside spins into chaos when Los Angeles cops on a raid, complete with military-style battering ram, crash through the front door, leaving Easy to flee across rooftops.
Cut to Andrew Young (Corey Hawkins), also known as Dr. Dre, spinning anything but chaos in his room. Dre, portrayed in the film as a kind of Zen-like devotee of the beat, lays in his childhood bedroom among stacks of wax, nodding in time to the rhythm.
There’s still another two hours and twenty minutes to go in Straight Outta Compton, much of which is great, but the filmmakers capture the essence of NWA so perfectly in these two scenes that much of the rest of the film is an ongoing attempt to reclaim that perfect balance.
Straight Outta Compton is a decade-spanning biopic about five men, four of whom are still alive, and two of whom— Dre and Ice Cube, plus Wright’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright— produced. That’s a recipe for hagiography, or at the very least a bit of historical revisionism slick with gloss and oversimplification. That founding member Arabian Prince, the Pete Best of NWA, is never even mentioned signals that the facts here will be curated.
In this telling, Easy was a drug runner wise enough to know he could only stretch his luck so far, so he decided to use his stash of cash to get into the music business. He partners with pal Dre, who DJs at a disco-style nightclub with Antoine Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.), also known as DJ Yella, and rhyme writers Lorenzo Patterson (Aldis Hodge), also known as MC Ren, and O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), also known as Ice Cube.
Ren and Yella are mostly relegated to the background as one-note characters— Ren as the steadfast friend, Yella as the skirt-chasing cutup. The trinity is truly complete when gangsta Easy and visionary Dre team up with Cube, a fellow Comptonite and obsessive lyricist who hones his hip-hop craft during long bus rides to a white school in a better neighborhood. (The movie’s funniest music cue comes when Cube, solitary on the bus, hears the synthy strains of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” hilariously stiff and out of place.)
The crew, now formed as Easy-E and NWA, signs with low-level concert promoter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Heller gets the group a record deal, and their powerful, controversial raps quickly propel them to the top of the hip-hop world. The seeds of dissention are sewn early, however, when Heller inks a contract with Easy but offers significantly lesser deals to the other four. That doesn’t sit well with Cube, who wrote many of NWA’s breakout hits, and it ultimately cracks the door open wide enough for Bobby Brown’s former bodyguard Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) to push his way into the already fractious negotiations.
Straight Outta Compton may play loose with the facts, but what director F. Gary Gray gets so right is the texture of late-eighties ghetto culture and the context from which the music arose. The debates about gansta rap will inevitably rage on: to what degree the music glorifies the drug culture and prods youth toward lives of crime, and the rampant misogyny of the lyrics.
Gray takes a more or less objective approach, presenting life in South Central as a roiling cauldron of black subculture, police violence, crime, music, and money. The script gives an origin story to Cube’s classic “Fuck tha Police” via a scene of harassment out front of a recording studio, but Daryl Gates’s Los Angeles Police Department plays a constant background role as omnipresent threats. The turmoil in the streets gives way to the increasing fervor of the L.A. riots, which Gray, a director of stylish action films like The Italian Job and The Negotiator, infuses with verve and grit. Some of the best footage in Straight Outta Compton is only tangentially about NWA.
As for the misogyny, that remains a hopelessly complicated issue. Gray addresses it most directly in a hotel room orgy scene, when a would be tough-guy shows up to NWA’s party suite searching for his girlfriend, who is among the bevy of ladies in various states of objectification. The fellas threaten the intruder with a machine gun and toss the girl into the hallway, naked and forgotten. This sequence works as a Rorschach test for your sympathies on the issue; at the screening I attended, half of the audience hooted and clapped while the other half squirmed in their seats. (Dre’s infamous assault against hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes is left unmentioned.)
Gray and his team of screenwriters, including Andrea Berloff, do a better than average job of not reducing the characters to a list of heroes and villains. Producer Heller would be the easy target of scorn, the white producer who cons the artists out of all their cash. There’s an element of that, but Giamatti’s Heller is also presented as a genuine advocate for his clients, and outraged by the disparate treatment they receive from the police. The looming alternative of Suge Knight makes him seem far more reasonable by comparison.
If the second half of Straight Outta Compton were as good as the first, it would undeniably be one of the greatest music biopics ever made. Instead, the narrative becomes unmoored from a cohesive timeline, and Gray skips forward fitfully trying to encompass all aspects of that busy, influential time: thrilling concert footage, the rise of Death Row Records, the emergence of Snoop and Tupac, even his own collaboration with Cube in the classic ghetto comedy Friday. That, coupled with how the street-level drama of the earlygoing is replaced by endless contract negotiations, drains the movie of some of its raw power.
Still, Straight Outta Compton is a towering achievement, an instant classic on the level of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (appropriately enough), as propulsive as Hustle and Flow but far more expansive. Gray is aiming to make The Godfather of hip-hop movies, and even if it doesn’t entirely succeed, the results are dazzling. Dynamite performances by Mitchell and Hawkins dominate the screen, so much so that they overshadow the involvement of Jackson Jr. playing his own old man.
Late in the movie, an older, wiser Cube laments, “We left a lotta great records on the table.” Not so for Straight Outta Compton. The movie may have its flaws, but Gray and his crew are all in.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.