Review: Straight Outta Compton finds new humanity in rap legends

The N.W.A biopic is a rare music movie that works

It’s impossible to talk about N.W.A without talking about South Central LA in the late 1980s. Crack had found its way to the inner city and burrowed itself there, as did the gang violence that followed it. President Ronald Reagan was leading a belligerent and misguided charge in the War on Drugs. The Los Angeles Police Department made up for recent budget and staff cuts with near-constant aggression in predominantly black neighborhoods like Compton. The department even had a special unit known as CRASH, which stood for Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (really) that encouraged police to use widespread force to combat gang violence in the city. One of the unit’s missions was known as Operation Hammer, a no-tolerance approach that really just meant arrest everyone. Police drove tanks with battering rams through the streets, crashing into homes they suspected were dope houses. The cops were quite literally destroying the city.

This is the world N.W.A was born out of, and this is where Straight Outta Compton — named after N.W.A’s seminal debut album — begins. Given its historical context, as well as our current cultural climate, Straight Outta Compton could’ve played it completely straight. The story, like so many music biopics before it, has already been written. But in the case of N.W.A, parts of it are still being written to this day. N.W.A was the product of two big cultural shifts: one of music (funk and pop paved the way for the birth of hip-hop) and one of politics (exhaustion from police brutality that ultimately led to the 1992 LA riots). The movie doesn’t let us rest on either element for very long, juxtaposing the two at a dizzying pace. Scenes of N.W.A’s small recording triumphs are bookended by scenes of piggish white cops roughing up the members for the crime of standing too long in one place. Director F. Gary Gray favors up-close shots that move quickly in a way that’s both intimate and disorienting. Scenes of bloody skulls at the hands of police move sharply to lazy low-riders and glitzy clubs in a way that’s both menacing and winking: Hey, just making sure you’re paying attention.

The movie’s Compton backdrop gives it a heavy atmosphere, but one in which levity can still be found, and when its jokes land — which is often — relief rushes in with the laughter. The relatively unknown cast rises to the incredible challenge of portraying some of the most recognizable people in the music industry. As Eazy-E, Jason Mitchell is by turns thick-headed, cunning, kind, infuriating, and fragile. Corey Hawkins plays Dr. Dre with an easy intelligence that would’ve made him look like an undoubtable force even if we didn’t already know the man he would turn out to be (He cries twice during the movie; so did I). O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube's real life son, who looks almost exactly like his dad on screen) plays Cube with a humanity that makes him seem both familiar and untouchable. Even Paul Giamatti, who plays N.W.A’s nerdy and possibly evil manager Jerry Heller, is sufficiently cringey.

Straight Outta Compton

Universal Pictures

Straight Outta Compton shows us how N.W.A protected themselves from a frequently hostile world by creating their own self-contained ecosystem. But it also lets us inside that ecosystem, turning biographical facts into genuinely affecting dramatic moments. Every N.W.A fan already knows that Eazy-E didn’t know how to rap at first. He was a drug dealer who had the money to help Dre launch Ruthless Records. It’s also common knowledge that Ice Cube originally wrote "Boyz-N-The-Hood" for a New York rap group to perform, but when the New Yorkers didn’t understand the West Coast slang, Dre asked E to rap it. But despite what we already know, there’s something completely new about actually seeing Eazy-E in the studio, sunglasses on, fumbling his way through his first verse. He can’t stay on the beat; he sounds like an audio book narrator. So when we finally hear the recorded version of the song, the transition is miraculous. Before, "Boyz-N-The-Hood" was just a good song. In Straight Outta Compton, it becomes a song that solidifies the intimacy of E and Dre’s friendship. It took nine hours to record, line by line.

That’s the best part about music movies. If they’re done right, they make fans feel a little more connected to musicians they grew up with, or wish they grew up with. They tell old stories in ways that seem new. And they shamelessly play to their built-in audience in a way that almost always works. Raucous N.W.A concerts in front of wild crowds are catnip for superfans; the soundtrack lines up lazy boom-bap and funk against N.W.A’s gangsta rap to near-perfect effect (except for the risk of the people sitting next to you in the theater singing along). Small moments — a billboard for The Chronic, a Bone Thugs N Harmony cassette tape — help build the story of N.W.A’s empire, a formidable but ultimately unstable structure.

Straight Outta Compton

Universal Pictures

Here’s the thing about the story of N.W.A: it’s long. It’s not just about Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella; N.W.A’s strong, willowy tentacles have an impressive reach, intersecting with Suge Knight’s story, with Snoop Dogg’s story, with Tupac’s story. There are so many musical beginnings linked to N.W.A that even just six degrees of separation would’ve made this movie 12 hours long. As it stands, it’s two and a half hours long. And it does feel that long. The edit room balance seems off at times: the Rodney King beating and trial gets a mere two half-scenes, but several meaningless fights and one too-long chase scene were left in.

If 2015 needed a movie about one musical group, it’s N.W.A

Still, if 2015 needed a movie about one musical group, it’s N.W.A. In their time, they were the biggest hip-hop group in the world, and they managed to say what millions of kids in inner cities wished they could. Their music predicted what would happen if nothing was done about the tension between underserved communities and a too-aggressive police force. And those predictions are still coming true, which says a lot about N.W.A’s foresight, but not a lot about how much we listened.

Straight Outta Compton opens in US theaters on August 14th, 2015.


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