Film Reviews

Straight Outta Compton's Urgent Truth Gets Lost in Paperwork

In the holy trinity of N.W.A., each icon had a power: Dr. Dre produced, Ice Cube wrote the words, and Eazy-E was the comic relief. N.W.A.'s biopic, Straight Outta Compton, blurs those roles. Both Dre and Cube produced the film and seem to have edited the script with a red pen. The surviving rappers have smudged everything that might make them look like creeps or chumps, beveling so many rough edges that their screen selves become blank slates. They're bland good guys — geniuses, really — distinguishable mainly by which sports logo each wears on his hat. Ironically, it's left to Eazy-E, the deceased member who can't sue, to give their story life.

As Eazy-E, newcomer Jason Mitchell is introduced with the moon backlighting his Jheri curl before he sprints away from the cops. His Eazy screws people and gets screwed over. He swaggers and threatens, cowers and makes destructive choices, imbuing the film with his deluded, squeaky-voiced soul. By contrast, when Cube (Ice Cube's oldest son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., who is excellent) smashes up a record exec's (Tate Ellington) office for skimping on his royalties, the scene frames him as a hood hero triumphing over the Man. As for Dre (Corey Hawkins) beating TV host Dee Barnes so brutally that she filed a $22.75 million lawsuit, that's not here at all. Dre does allow in his 1994 arrest for drunk driving but rewinds that night back to the studio to pin his behavior on Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) riling him up. And we definitely don't see Dre serving any of his 1995 jail sentence — an odd omission in a docudrama that's often about street cred.

The true tale of N.W.A. won't be told on film until all of its members are in the grave.

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"Y'all always fucking with me," Dre groans to the arresting officers. That line should be Straight Outta Compton's sharpest theme, but in the moment, it sputters out like a flat tire. Dre was, after all, leading the cops on a 90 mph chase through Beverly Hills. It's a misstep because in any other moment in the movie, he'd be right. Director F. Gary Gray edits the LAPD into the film like they're Jason in a Friday the 13th movie, always lurking: Their cars roll past in the background, their sirens wail unseen, their officers tackle the group again and again just for being in the "wrong" place, i.e., in front of their recording studio or on the sidewalk outside a friend's house.

An N.W.A. movie could have come out any time in the past two decades. Biggie Smalls got his six years ago; Eminem made his three years after his first hit. But we're here in the theater today because a generation after N.W.A. shouted "Fuck the police!" neighborhoods across America — in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, McKinney, Baltimore — still ache to hear it. Ice Cube's blast at cops who "think they have the authority to kill a minority" echoes. If anything, it's gotten louder. The onscreen confrontations with the LAPD build to the Rodney King beating, which we see the stars watching. Eazy is outraged by the footage. DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) nods, "At least we got those muthafuckas on video." At least King lived. How grim is it to watch this scene in 2015 and admit that long after N.W.A.'s brave feud with the FBI, things have actually gotten worse? Now we have even more cameras — yet the victims so often are dead. Meanwhile, in last year's Ride Along, Ice Cube played a cop who fires guns at unarmed civilians, falsely accuses a kid of assaulting a police officer, and brags that his Wi-Fi password is "SuspectShot23."

Gray doesn't fulfill Straight Outta Compton's political potential (or perhaps his producers steered him in a different direction). Halfway through, he seems to decide that what audiences really want to see in an N.W.A. biopic are label contract disputes. The second chunk is a grind wherein Cube, and then Dre, peel away from Jerry Heller's (Paul Giamatti) Ruthless Records, team up with new business partners, and then leave them too. In a 150-minute film, that's a lot of paperwork. It's clear what producers Cube and Dre are most interested in: the money. Story is secondary, especially when the facts are embarrassing. Straight Outta Compton deletes what could have been its best scenes — say, how Knight dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony so he and Dre could fund Death Row Records with the profits from "Ice Ice Baby," the antithesis of gangsta rap.

Knight's slow emergence as a power-hungry player is great. He allows himself to get brushed off as a big lug until the guys realize he can hit back — hard. A back-and-forth rundown of Ice Cube, Eazy, and Dre's three-way dis-track feud is fun, even if it cuts out the "Dre Day" video, in which a character called "Sleazy-E" does the Roger Rabbit while clutching a cardboard sign reading "Will Rap for Food." (And it definitely doesn't have Eazy's counterpunch, "Real Muthaphuckkin G's," where the rapper bashed Sleazy to death with a bat.)

By the time Tupac and Snoop bop past in seconds-long cameos, it's clear that Straight Outta Compton is at once too padded and too thin. It's as if the story of these real-life legends was so unruly and dangerous that the filmmakers became the cops, forcing it into submission. The true tale of N.W.A. won't be told on film until all of its members are in the grave. Hang on to your Raiders caps, kids of 2070. At least, unless things on the streets turn around before then, those future generations will still need to hear N.W.A.'s famous fuck-you.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications – DenverWestword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly – and in VMG’s film partner, the Village Voice.

Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.