The main lesson to be taken from Straight Outta Compton is that NWA sold out at the first possible opportunity, yet were still regarded as the pinnacle of rap music simply because of their early achievements. With the exception of Easy-E (Jason Mitchell), who is seen fleeing a drug deal gone wrong in the thrilling action sequence that opens the movie, none of the group had any association with the gangster lifestyle – they merely wrote lyrics that reflected what they saw and heard about on the streets of their hometown. The film shows Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) as music nerds, the former trying to get a job as a DJ, forever listening to his record collection in his bedroom, whilst Cube is constantly writing down lyrics about the things he sees in ever-expanding notebooks. The only association to the gangster lifestyle is the bad things they’ve seen happen around them, that don’t even phase them anymore.
Yet straight after the success of their debut album, they start embracing the gangster lifestyle without so much as a signal of a change in character; minutes earlier we’ve heard them intelligently claim their lyrics are a reflection to society, not an embrace of it. Then, just under an hour in, the film starts to take a sour turn as we have them with guns chasing away gang members at an orgy; they claim they are above violence, yet have instantly sold out and are now becoming the very thing they prophesied against (weirdly, the fact they have just threatened people with guns in a hotel is never mentioned again). Straight Outta Compton is confused as to whether we want to see NWA as the socially conscious group holding a mirror to society, or the string of debauchery-ridden solo artists they became; the fact it tries to do both at once leaves it feeling confused, leaving you with no real indication of whether you are supposed to like them or not. The film always portrays NWA as heroes, which would be no problem if it didn’t try to portray their later indulgences in violence and constant cheating on girlfriends as heroic or aspirational.
As you would expect from a movie based around the male fantasy of a successful hip-hop lifestyle, the female “characters” here are portrayed in a way that will likely blind many viewers due to how far back into their heads their eyes will roll. This isn’t a Wolf of Wall Street style portrayal, where male debauchery is satirically shown as hell on earth and women are absent outside of the bedroom – this is a wholehearted embrace of masculinity at its most tedious. In one scene, that initially appears crucial to Dre’s character arc, the mother of his child and his son show up outside the recording studio to say they are leaving him. Dre cries out that he loves his son – and then we never see or hear about him again.
At least we know the other members of NWA are great parents; why else would Ice Cube’s son be playing the role of his father if he didn’t respect him (although pretending to be your dad in a sex scene is likely a surreal, quasi-incestous experience). The film repeatedly skips character arcs in this way, assuming we care more about the hip-hop lifestyle, but this ends up detrimental to the rest of the plot. We don’t care about the family life of NWA as we never get a chance to see it, and more time is spent with the countless groupies who they bang. It is remarkable how, in a film that is two and a half hours long and feels an hour longer than it should be, there is still so much important ground that needs to be covered.
Due to the scenes of police brutality against innocent black people and the backdrop of the Rodney King beatings, the movie still has relevance in the #blacklivesmatter age, with the “Fuck the Police” performance scene being an emotionally charged moment that is very much the film’s highlight. No matter how relevant these scenes still feel, it still feels regressive in almost every other way – all female characters are merely “pussy” and the only reference to the existence of LGBT people is when Easy-E claims that he is “not a faggot”, a comment which remained unquestioned. Even in the era the movie takes place, this would have felt regressive.
Now, I’ve gone on record multiple times about how much I love a good musician biopic. Inspirational biopics released around awards-season don’t do anything for me, but a good musician biopic will always hit the right notes (pun very much intended). The problem with Straight Outta Compton is that in its first hour there is so much to like; the actors have great chemistry, the performance sequences are thrilling and it helps non-fans understand their importance within popular music (something which the other recent hip-hop biopic, Notorious, failed to do). The film perfectly evokes the era it was set in – it feels like the eighties, from the fashion to the soundtrack, in a way that is commendable. It doesn’t feel like a biopic, as that suggests a recreation of the era; these early scenes in the Compton neighbourhoods feel like they have been satellite-beamed straight from the 80’s to the present day. In these early stages it is positively comparable to other recent rock-biopics. Keeping in line with recent Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, we even have Paul Giamatti playing a morally suspect manager at his scenery-chewing best.
Straight Outta Compton is effectively directed by F. Gary Gray, who previously directed Friday, which was written by Ice Cube, as this movie would like to point out very frequently. The fact Gray and Cube have been friends for years does make it feel like a hagiography at times, never getting under the skin of the group’s bad behaviour as they are helping cash the cheques getting it made. The movie is enjoyable for the most part, but you can’t take seriously a group who have sold out so instantaneously on the message that got them famous. Ice Cube once said “Fuck the Police”- now, he’s starring in two comedy franchises playing different law enforcers, whilst the police are still massacring unarmed African American civilians. For a film that is being clarified as socially relevant on all corners, it does feel a tad out of touch, like an uncle reminding you that he’s still cool.