“Straight Outta Compton” chronicles the early years of seminal gangster rap pioneers Niggaz Wit Attitude (N.W.A.), who reigned over the hip-hop landscape from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. The film has its share of revealing moments and there are some scenes of emotional complexity that will hook viewers, but at the heart of this biopic is a complete whitewashing of the uglier, less commercially convenient, aspects of its subjects’ personal and professional histories. The result is a film that’s nowhere near as humanizing as it could’ve been if the subjects were not also its executive producers.
After all, it’s hard for an executive producer to present an honest cinematic depiction of his life and career when his son plays him on the screen — as is the case with Ice Cube, (also known as O’Shea Jackson), who is depicted by his son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.
Jackson, Jr. stars alongside Corey Hawkins, who plays talented musical producer Andre “Dr. Dre” Young; and Jason Mitchell, who plays rapper Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Two other members, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.) and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) round out the pioneering hip-hop collective.
From the success of Eazy-E’s debut album “Eazy-Duz-It,” the group attracts the attention of music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and sign a deal with Ruthless Records to record their debut album under the name N.W.A.
The album is a success, but its provocative, belligerent content invites scrutiny from the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department, which charge the group with inciting violence against local law enforcement with their megahit “F— the Police.” The song is an indictment on the unfair treatment of African-Americans by California police. It remains one of the landmarks of hip-hop and still has the ability to shock and penetrate people’s emotions, particularly given the recent news reports regarding alleged police misconduct throughout the country.
The film touches on the band’s controversies in checklist-like fashion — the formation, the rise to fame, the breakup, the post-breakup verbal attacks and the eventual reconciliation. The narrative flow has all the pacing of a 100-meter dash. The film does dramatize some pivotal elements of the group’s history, but with so much material to cover in a mere 2 hours and 27 minutes, there isn’t enough time to dig into the nuances behind the band’s rise and fall.
This is too bad, because many of the film’s best scenes are ones that offer a glimpse into the daily realities of these men, which underscore just how important their personal experiences were in shaping their art. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Eazy-E, who had originally planned on managing the band, was persuaded by Dre and Cube to record. The scene allows a glimpse into the comradery between the young men and their creative process.
I also enjoyed the tense opening scene, in which Eazy-E, who at this time is still a drug-dealer, gets into a standoff with a rival dealer. The scene climaxes with one of the most powerful police raids I’ve ever seen on film. The scene allows the viewer to see the savviness and the undercurrent of danger that characterized Eazy-E’s life. It’s also an effective harbinger of his tragic death from the AIDS virus in 1995.
But despite some powerful performances by the film’s fresh ensemble of actors, its fluid (if incredibly fast) pacing and its entertaining feel, the film excludes most of the unflattering aspects of the band’s history — and this is its ultimate undoing.
The film completely ignores or glosses over the men’s misogyny, the physical violence toward the women in their lives and some very important, if unflattering, factors in their artistic development.
The hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes recently wrote an article for Gawker during which she recalled her beating at the hands of Dre in 1991. At the time, Barnes was the host of the Fox show “Pump it Up” and she had conducted an interview with Cube at the time of his split from N.W.A. Dre and the remaining members thought the show’s airing of the interview was disrespectful. When Dre confronted Barnes at a swanky party, he beat her severely — kicking her, slamming her head against a wall, stomping her.
When asked about the incident during a Rolling Stone interview conducted not long after it happened, Dre said, “It ain’t no big thing — I just threw her through a door.” Barnes would eventually settle a civil lawsuit out of court.
This incident was scrubbed from the movie, which only covers the aspects of the group’s history that aligns with its “we were just a group of young black men speaking truth to power” narrative. It’s not a surprise, since Dre and Cube are executive producers and the film’s director is F. Gary Gray (incidentally, the man who, according to Barnes, filmed the infamous “Pump it Up” interview and played a part in it ultimately airing — which Barnes said she advised against because she was afraid the bit would bring the men to hurt each other).
Something else that was either ignored or glossed over by the film? Dre’s pre-N.W.A. involvement with The World Class Wreckin’ Cru, the electro-R&B outfit that had more in common with N’Sync than N.W.A. Dre was a member of the group from 1983 to 1986, when he was penning and performing love songs. The Wreckin Cru’s signature sartorial style wasn’t the black and gray aggression of L.A. Raiders ball caps and jerseys; rather, it was sequined suit jackets, stethoscope chains and generous applications of lipstick and eyeliner.
In some scenes of the film, Dre shows up in a flashy pink jacket during DJ gigs, but the dialogue leaves viewers with the impression that the clothes were part of his costume for a job he held at a club, rather than his costume for an R&B group.
The film also ignored offensive views of Asians and Jews Cube held at the time. Granted, there’s a scene where Heller, a Jew, reacts negatively to lyrics in “No Vaseline,” but the film depicts Cube’s distrust of Heller as justified without being forced to confront what may have been the rapper’s anti-Semitism at the time.
The consequences of this revisionism is that you get Hollywood’s version of N.W.A. rather than the uglier, if more human, N.W.A. The film would make you think that Dre’s attacks on Dee Barnes or Michel’le (Dre’s former girlfriend, who says the producer beat her often and even shot at her head once) never happened; that the band’s detractors were simply one-dimensional racist cops or parasitic Jews; and that Dre was never a member of a glam band.
It would have been truer to the group’s original philosophy of ‘keeping it real,’ ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’ if Dre and Cube, the film’s producers, allowed for a bit more reality and truthfulness regarding their own past mistakes; rather than altering their personal realities to meet their own commercial ends.