Director F. Gary Gray’s group-endorsed new N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton brings us back to a time when hip-hop didn’t yet dominate popular culture. Now that rap has long been at the forefront of pop music, it’s easy to forget that in the 1980s, the form wasn’t just new but also novel, an outsider’s music not yet embraced by the (white) mainstream. An art form in the midst of defining itself—part party music, part platform to address serious social issues— rap in the mid-to-late ’80s was so exciting precisely because its possibilities seemed endless, even if some dismissed it as a fad.
Straight Outta Compton is well crafted and engrossing, but also dispiriting: It tells a story that’s meant to be triumphant, but plays out more like a cautionary tale. Gray and his producers, which include N.W.A luminaries Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, want to chronicle the story of some poor, scrappy L.A. kids who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, documented the racism they saw around them, and forever changed hip-hop in the process. That’s not inaccurate, but it also isn’t entirely right. The film advances the notion that N.W.A were renegade heroes worthy of our adoration. But to me, they worked better as the bad guys, the proud villains, the middle finger to a bigoted white society that wanted to see them destroyed. But what kind of self-respecting villain turns around and asks to be loved?
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” we hear as the Universal logo first rolls across the screen, and that got a chuckle from the audience at my screening—a callback to Dre’s statement at the onset of N.W.A’s first full-length album, which gives this biopic its name. But whether on the 1988 disc or in this 2015 movie, the line is both a boast and a shield. N.W.A, as well as the music that Dre and Cube made in their subsequent solo careers, advertised itself as honest reporting from the front line of America’s poorest communities, where drugs, violence, government indifference, and police brutality were just part of the mise en scène. The harshness of those reports was meant to shock—and if critics objected, well, N.W.A were just speaking the truth.
That’s a good rationale, but what never sat right about N.W.A.’s music continues to irritate here. Over the course of two and a half hours, Gray shows the group’s rise and fall, and observes how Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E individually coped with the group’s eventual dissolution. We see how amazing songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Gangsta Gangsta”—and then, later, “No Vaseline,” “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” and Dre’s Tupac collaboration “California Love”—came about. We meet Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the manager who courted Eazy-E in the early days, helped send N.W.A into the stratosphere, and then contributed to the group’s split through his questionable business practices. Don’t look too closely behind the curtain, and you’ll be perfectly content to sit back and enjoy a slick, entertaining biopic.
But the film’s treatment of the band members is actually antithetical to what made them such a powerful—and feared—group in the first place. When the Straight Outta Compton album hit in the summer of 1988, hip-hop was still primarily a singles medium, the realm of novelty hits from the likes of the Fat Boys and the Beastie Boys. (Run-D.M.C. had recently stormed the charts by covering a classic-rock staple, “Walk This Way.”) While social consciousness had been part of rap’s DNA from the start, it hadn’t begun to really flower until Public Enemy’s second record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, dropped in June of that year, weaving speeches from Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson into the group’s pointedly political sonic assault. PE frontman Chuck D tackled drug addiction, government surveillance, and black-on-black crime with a clear moral authority, like a preacher mixing wisdom with fire and brimstone.
But while an East Coast act like Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions sermonized with righteous anger, N.W.A married their indelible songs to antagonistic, reactionary lyrics, urging listeners to yell “Fuck the Police” and celebrate the life of a “Gangsta Gangsta,” which copped a line from BDP’s “My Philosophy.” “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality,” they rapped. But reality wasn’t ever really N.W.A’s thing: On Straight Outta Compton, the EP 100 Miles and Runnin’, and the Cube-less Niggaz4life, they sold a finely tuned fantasy-cum-blaxploitation portrait of urban poverty, adding a heightened, oft-romanticized component to their narratives. And in the process, gangster rap was born and soon took over the world, for both better and worse.
In surveying the formation of N.W.A.—including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge)—the movie offers plenty of juicy pleasures, Gray (a former rap-video director) briskly moves the story from one career highlight to the next, but in a way that makes the final product seem oddly indifferent to its own callousness. As we see in the film, the band members had a right to despise the local police, who harassed them and treated them with suspicion simply because they were black. But whether it’s an early scene of Eazy-E in the midst of a drug deal or later tales of the group on the road bagging groupies and intimidating enemies with machine guns, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the group’s behavior.
Anybody who loves hip-hop has to spend time reconciling the genius of the music with the occasionally questionable lyrics at its center. (And, to be sure, there’s an inherent racism in that dilemma: Few bat an eye at violent lyrics or misogyny in classic rock, chalking it up to poetic license and creative expression. It’s only when blacks are engaging in provocative lyrics that we clutch our pearls.) Nonetheless, N.W.A’s sheer hatred of women and “bitches” on songs like “I Ain’t the 1,” “One Less Bitch,” or “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” can’t quite be redeemed by killer lyrics or superb beats: The misanthropy might be simply too galling. But this aspect of the group is somewhat candy-coated here: The ladies hanging around the band are often depicted as more trouble than their worth, reduced to nags or sex objects or, very rarely, the loyal wife. (In other cases, they’re just flat-out missing from the narrative: The removal of Dre’s January 1991 violent assault of reporter Dee Barnes is conspicuous and borderline irresponsible.)
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t need to vilify its subjects or be oppressively moralistic in the name of “balance,” but Gray’s refusal to be tough on his subjects does no favors to the group or to hip-hop’s cultural legacy. At its best, this movie suggests that imperfect young men—these guys were practically kids when they started out—took the combustible raw material of their personal lives and transformed it into music that resonated with people far removed from their circumstances. What’s missing is any sense of self-reflection. Whatever your feelings about Dre, Cube, or Eazy-E, chances are you’ve given them more thought than this film has. Gray paints them as unlikely, somewhat unwitting antiheroes, shocked by the success of their militant music but weirdly incurious about its impact. (The film’s ethos apparently derives from Cube’s line in “Gangsta Gangsta”: “Do I look like a motherfuckin’ role model?”)
Much is made of the fact that N.W.A were a beacon and a mirror for social change—the 1992 Rodney King riots are referenced—but Gray has zero interest in exploring how that change affected the band. Instead, the film becomes a backstage drama as Cube gets pissed that Heller is screwing him over on money and jumps ship, triggering a war of words with his ex-bandmates. (Later, Dre bolts too and joins up with Suge Knight, which brings its own consequences.) Ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is as much about salary as it is about reality.
N.W.A are hardly the first band, white or black, to be riddled with contradictions, to be extremely influential and also “problematic.” In that way, this film merely echoes the we’re-just-telling-it-like-it-is defense long espoused in the group’s music. But that doesn’t protect them from criticism—it makes them more deserving of it. There’s a rich story to be told about these young boys who stumbled their way out of Compton and became accidental spokesmen for social and political causes greater than themselves, fighting with each other and tearing down their own group along the way. Telling that story would take real guts, real introspection, real heart—qualities in even shorter supply on film than they are on record.
Tim’s latest book, Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome, a biography and critical reevaulation of the seminal hip-hop band, is available through Amazon.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.