Straight Outta Compton. 2015. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Screenplay by Andrea Berloff & Jonathan Herman; story by Andrew Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, & Alan Wenkus.
Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carra Patterson, Alexandrea Shipp, Paul Giamatti, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, and Keith Stanfield. New Line Cinema.
Rated 18A. 147 minutes.
To start, I have to tell people – this is a long one. More than normal. That’s because I credit N.W.A – the most infamous rap group of all time, Niggaz Wit Attitudes – with having enough power, despite their own personal flaws, to open a white boy from Newfoundland, Canada’s eyes to the black experience of young men and women in inner city neighbourhoods, such as the titular Compton. So just stick with me: this review is a beast, but I have things to say, that need to be said concerning Straight Outta Compton.
There’s something truly unique about N.W.A and all the social aspects which surrounded the group’s beginnings, fame, and downfall. Now, while I don’t particularly condone everything these guys did – particularly I’m reminded of the all too absent Dee Barnes assault and other Dre assaults on women from the film – I do recognize how important this one group was in terms of rap and hip hop, as well as where the whole game ended up going after their arrival.
It’s funny how these guys from Compton, so immersed in the black experience, can speak to people of all colours, ages, creeds. Their revolution was one which spoke to many, but certainly most to the young black youth of America. Even white kids like me who grew up in the 1990s were interested in what these guys were doing. It’s because N.W.A, for all their faults, stood against the establishment, they were in the thick of the gang wars in Los Angeles, raging through Compton just about every day, and they spoke to their audience through anger, unrest, and they didn’t take any mess. They took plenty of constructive criticism, even more hatred and spewing of vitriol from people who saw them as a plague in music and society. For all the trashing, there were plenty of people in the streets and the audiences behind N.W.A and all for which they stood.
While I have plenty of love for the musical talents of N.W.A, I don’t necessarily feel like everything they were about made it onto the screen. I do admire a bit of F. Gary Gray’s work as a director, however, I don’t think this is one of the best in the end. Sure, it’s a decent combover on the history of N.W.A, as well as its individual members, but ultimately I don’t see enough of their rawness and the reality of all their faults AND successes in this story that’s being told. I do like Straight Outta Compton, but I can’t say it’s an incredible biopic. The actors do a FABULOUS job with their performances, both physically embodying their real life characters and even the voices, it’s simply not enough to carry this into the realm of a classic biopic. The work was put in, the movie looks good, sounds good, feels good, but the truth was left out at many important intervals in this story and that cannot let Straight Outta Compton stand completely upright on its own.
Beginning in 1987, Straight Outta Compton attempts to tell the tale of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Mc Ren, and DJ Yella (Arabian Prince seems to be left out completely unless I missed something) on their road towards becoming N.W.A – Niggaz Wit Attitudes – one of the biggest powerhouses in 20th century music, and one of the reasons rap/hip hop ended up becoming such a mainstay in society.
With their meagre beginnings, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is talked into investing some of his drug money into music by his DJ friend Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and aspiring rapper Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). From there, things take off: first Eazy gets on the mic and then the magic starts happening.
Once Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) becomes a part of the mix, the tensions rise, as he sets Eazy aside from the others slightly. As Dre and Eazy seem to be fine with most everything (MC Ren and Yella aren’t discussed too much in detail really), Ice Cube has problems with the way his finances are being treated, seeing as how he wrote many of the big hits for N.W.A starting out.
Straight Outta Compton documents the quick rise and the equally as quick fall from grace of N.W.A and the lives of each of its members.
An amazing scene comes around 40 minutes in, when N.W.A performs their first big show with producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) in attendance. He brings in a guy from a label who offers the guys a contract with them. The funniest of this is when they ask who he has on the label, to which he replies “The California Raisins“. There’s something so ironic and strange about this moment that I can’t help mention it. I think it goes to speak to how N.W.A was being sought after to be the next big thing; this label, only dealing with the Raisins so far, chomps at the bit to get them signed. I’m not sure if it was meant this way, however, I definitely feel like this was included for a reason. Maybe it’s the actual conversation, who knows, but I feel it speaks to part of the commercial craving a lot of producers were feeling as soon as they saw N.W.A, and similar groups/acts/et cetera. That’s an aspect to the story we can never forget – much as these were talented men trying hard to do their thing, they were also young and dumb and very naive, and part of that led to their exploitation on certain levels. To my mind, this California Raisins scene is part of that in a subtle sense.
Inarguably, a significant portion of Straight Outta Compton has to do with the police treatment of young black men in and around neighbourhoods like Compton. After Jerry Heller takes on N.W.A as a group and they’re recording, a scene comes which shows how prejudiced the Los Angeles police were especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s towards black people. As the group hangs outside the recording studio eating burgers and drinking their sodas, two cop cars pull up and start to harass them all. Even a black police officer is the first out, yet still they’re there to sweat these guys; a very telling moment.
What I find best about this scene is how Heller witnesses everything going down. He storms out and reprimands the officers, stating that they can’t simply harass people because they’re black. While we know this goes on, I think having Heller so worked up about the treatment N.W.A receives at the curb while merely standing around innocently and eating lunch speaks VOLUMES. He’s probably discovering, for the first time, this type of situation happens and the police – who are meant to protect and serve – are some of the most racist, prejudiced people on the streets. There are plenty of scenes in the film about this prejudice, I found this one to be one of the most important, as we see the white guy realize how devastating the lives of black people can be when confronted with these young black men being treated like garbage.
Later, we’re treated to a scene where N.W.A, along with Heller, watch a news report on the police brutality Rodney King suffered in 1991. This is an important moment because we can see how emotionally affected each member is, while the only white guy present, Heller, simply thinks they need to keep working; it’s not that he’s rude about it, he simply does not understand or feel the news in the same way as the group.
Even though I don’t feel as if the full truth about N.W.A comes out in Straight Outta Compton, there are absolutely a few scenes where we get a broader view of these guys than simply “Oh they’re revolutionary black musicians”. They certainly were, but they were and are still people; these are human beings.
One in particular I found brutally honest was in the hotel, as Dre opens his room’s door to a man looking for his girlfriend; a woman who is clearly in the room. From a door out of the room a little ways down, Eazy and the boys come out holding guns, chasing the guys off. So a lot of people might watch this and immaturely think “Those guys are badass”, this is not something cool. At all. I mean, sure that girl was cheating on her man, but then Dre and Eazy act like it’s stupid that this guy might come and threaten them? C’mon. This just goes to show how rough and hypocritical these guys could be at any given time. While they often fought the good fight, there were plenty of times they did some nasty downright horrible shit, whether together or individually. This hotel scene is one such instance.
There’s also part of me believes, were Eazy-E still alive, this would’ve been a completely different film. First of all, we’re not given as much of Eazy as you might believe while watching. Even with the opening sequence centred around Eric “Eazy-E” Wright in his element, dealing drugs and surviving on the streets, there’s surprisingly little in regards to the actual character, the real life person he was and became. There’s such a glossed over history of N.W.A in Straight Outta Compton that it doesn’t really surprise me Gray’s film ignores largely much of Eazy and his own personal history.
It’s not only Eazy. Seems to me the script Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman came up with wanted to focus on the ideas producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre felt the spotlight should be on. I get it – Dre and Cube both don’t want their misogyny on the big screen. So first off, there’s the fact they’ve omitted Dee Barnes (and others) significantly. Instead, we get the idea Dre has always only ever been a respectful man towards women – concerned with caring for his family and helping his mother. Maybe that’s partly true, but doesn’t change the fact he’s had a history of violence towards women.
On the other hand, we get little bits of Cube being violent to quell any worries there might be a bias. So we watch him smash up an office building when he’s not getting the money he is owed – y’know, instead of legal recourse. This doesn’t do anything but discredit Cube and the methods these guys used in order to solve their problems. I get it, I know a lot of guys like them who grew up rough and had trouble with the police sometimes for NO reason. That doesn’t change the fact some of the things Cube and the rest of N.W.A do are downright immature, childish, and violent. Still, while we get these little scenes there’s a lot we’re not shown, and for good reason.
People can come to terms with a bit of violent nature when it comes to Cube getting what he’s owed, they’d probably be WAY LESS willing to put aside Dre and his disrespect for women – certainly more so now than back in the ’80s or ’90s, post-Chris Brown and an overall societal awakening to the rampant abuse women face.
We get good looks at Suge Knight, but again, he’s another character who we don’t get to see the full truth about. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence here suggesting Knight’s rough, more violent approach to business with Death Row Records. What we don’t get is a broad spectrum to show how dangerous the man is, merely there are typical scenes we’d expect – there’s no range in Suge, at all. Not saying he’s a complicated man; here, though, he is downright one-dimensional. He’s like the big villain, the bad guy. And he is villainous in real life. To me, the problem is this feels like the CliffNotes version of the Suge Knight subplot in the overall greater story of N.W.A. There’s no real introduction to Suge as much as the other major players in the story; he simply shows up in the life of Dre and becomes a presence.
Meanwhile, the other big baddie is Jerry Heller. He gets more play and we see more about him as a person, as a character, instead of merely being a negative entity in the world of N.W.A in the sense Suge is displayed. He’s not particularly likeable all the time, though, he’s afforded more characterization as that villainous entity than Suge Knight, which I think is unfair; Suge doesn’t deserve much, however, they might as well give him more time seeing as how he played such a destructive force in Dre’s career and the final dismantling of N.W.A.
Above all, the film opts to go more for all the interpersonal drama between Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, as well as Eazy-E and the others, instead of taking more time to focus on the individual lives of each member. We get small slivers, it seems like most of that is relegated to the respective N.W.A members with their wives – we don’t ever see much of the stepping out, the cheating, we don’t watch Eazy-E do much sleeping around (other than one brief reference as he tells Jerry he’s about to go have a bunch of sex).
So while there are great moments in this script – think the whole angle of including the Watts Riots after Rodney King’s assaulters, the police, were not indicted for their crimes – I can’t say that Straight Outta Compton is solid. Not in any way. There’s never enough focus on the right aspects, there isn’t enough of the REALNESS, the RAW GRITTY story behind N.W.A.
Instead we’re treated to a bunch of half-assed looks at some of the people surrounding Dre, Cube, and the rest. For instance, Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) shows up in a couple scenes; mostly it’s an excuse to have someone imitate Snoop, well enough, but there’s nothing interesting here except hearing them come up “Gin and Juice”. Then Marcc Rose shows up playing Tupac Shakur, if only for a scene; plus they’ve got someone else voicing him. I mean, why even bother? It serves no purpose in the end here to include Snoop and Tupac, or anyone else, that’s not an integral part to the story. They’re simply little add-ons not given enough time to do anything but show up. I thought this was beyond lazy.
One thing I did not like is how the director felt the need to spoon feed us with the names of each character. Do you really think N.W.A fans can’t figure out which one is Eazy, Ren, Dre, Cube, Yella? I mean, sure, it gives the film a little style having their names pop up next to them, but to me it’s annoying. F. Gary Gray, did you have to put Dre’s name up while we’re watching him with the headphones on, listening to a beautiful song, almost conducting with his fingers as he listens? You think we couldn’t have figured that out on our own? Not to mention the fact each of the N.W.A cast members looks like who they’re playing. There’s no need at all to tell us “THIS IS DRE THIS IS EAZY” and so on. Overkill in my mind. Too heavy handed a technique for me, especially in a biopic; dumb move. It’s fine to put the dates up, things like that, I just can’t see any reason to label each character when it’s SO CLEAR who they are at all times.
In the end, I can only give this movie a 2.5 star rating. There’s no way I can go higher. Simply put, the fact Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced this film, and from what I gather worked on it closely from many angles, really damaged the end product. Part of that ended up in a lot of things being omitted: no mention of Dee Barnes or Dre’s other violent encounters with women, Eazy-E’s battle with AIDS is reduced to an endnote in the final 20 minutes (most of which is precipitated by lots of coughing instead of a real focus on how promiscuous Wright was through his career), Suge Knight is a one-dimensional villain, and overall none of the individual stories surrounding N.W.A are treated with care or shown in great detail.
While I love N.W.A, their music and parts of their legacy, I feel they’re most definitely a conflicted group in terms of how fans and others look at them. F. Gary Gray had an unreal opportunity with Straight Outta Compton, but it’s mostly all squandered in lieu of trying to draw out the emotions of fans by focusing on the drama of the beef between Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and so on. Even further, MC Ren and DJ Yella (as well as Arabian Prince who was a part of the group for a short time) are almost non-existent, other than a few choice scenes where they’re heard speaking. So it’s a shame all around. There’s not enough to justify this as some great biopic.
In reality, Straight Outta Compton does not live up to the hype, in any way, shape, or form. I’d go so far as to say I’ll probably never watch this again. Not worth the price of admission whatsoever, certainly not for a true fan. I’m actually sad and letdown by this film’s failure to live up to what I’d expected. Silly me, though. As soon as I learned Dre and Cube produced this, I knew there would be trouble. When the story is told by those who lived it, especially if there are tough and at times disturbing nuances, we’re not always granted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.