Movie Review: “Straight Outta Compton”

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
F. Gary Gray

Considering that core N.W.A. members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are producers of the film about the band that made them superstars, it will surprise no one to discover that “Straight Outta Compton” delivers an almost laughably squeaky-clean version of their life stories between 1986 and 1995. There is no mention of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s assault of Dee Barnes (he tried to throw her down a flight of stairs, but not before slamming her into a brick wall), and while they show Eric “Eazy-E” Wright responding with, “But I ain’t no faggot,” upon hearing the news that he has AIDS, they do not mention that Eazy-E in fact issued a statement days before his death, making sure that the world knew that he in fact wasn’t no faggot, and that he contracted the virus the way God intended him to: through heterosexual intercourse, as if there is some nobility in that. We get it, Eazy – you’re not gay. But you’re still dead.

In spite of this whitewashing (it seems vaguely racist to use that phrase to describe a bunch of African-Americans), “Compton” is a highly entertaining film. The concert and studio sequences are intoxicating, and the performance of Ice Cube – by Cube’s oldest son, for crying out loud – is mesmerizing. It’s no reinvention of the musical biopic wheel by any means, but there is an adrenaline rush that comes with a film about a bunch of dirt-poor kids from Compton banding together, compromising nothing, and bending the rest of the world to their will.

The movie begins in 1986, giving the audience brief back stories of the five core members of N.W.A., while making no mention of any previous band affiliations the members had (of which there are several). Andre Young was a dreamer, a supreme DJ talent under pressure to make bank and take care of his baby. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson was the main brain, equal parts poet and instigator. Eazy-E was the hustler who had the cash to make a recording happen. That recording was the Cube-penned “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” rapped by Eazy (who, if the movie is to be believed, couldn’t rap worth a damn at first) and was a massive hit out of the box. The song attracted the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who used his contacts to land Eazy’s indie label Ruthless Records a distribution deal with Priority Records.

N.W.A.’s debut album Straight Outta Compton is a massive hit, despite its defiant lack of radio friendliness. The band goes on the road and plays packed houses, and you all know what happens next: resentment sets in when the other members of the band see that Jerry treats Eazy better than he treats them. Band members leave, the remaining members insult the defectors on record, and a dis war ensues. Meanwhile, a full-blown psychopath is waiting in the wings to nab himself a piece of Dr. Dre’s ever-expanding pie.

The casting of all of the major players, even the bit part roles of rappers who would go on to become superstars in the years to come, is uncanny. O’Shea Jackson Jr. obviously has genetics on his side, but Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell are near-dead ringers for Dre and Eazy respectively, the latter in particular. (And just wait until you hear the Snoop impression that Keith Stanfield does.) The script has a tough task in juggling what is essentially three lead characters, but it does a nice job giving each character their arc and equal amounts of screen time, and all three step up when it’s time to shine. As for MC Ren and DJ Yella, they get a late mention as consultants in the credits, while Dre and Cube are second after director F. Gary Gray. If that doesn’t tell you where the balance of power has always been within the band, nothing will.

Speaking of Gray, he was an inspired choice to direct this. He and Ice Cube have a history (Gray directed the Cube-written comedy “Friday,” as well as the video for Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”), so it’s a given that he has an understanding of the material beyond anything that was on the page. He does a particularly good job in capturing the euphoria of the band on the merge of stardom (goofing off in the studio while laying down tracks, singing along with their friends when they hear their song on the radio). Sadly, there is nothing he can do about how cliché N.W.A.’s demise was. Money divides the band, opportunists take advantage of the division, band members realize that sometimes it really is better the devil you know, etc. There are some risqué parties, but by and large the band members look like tea totalers. There’s talk about Dre and Eazy sleeping around, but we see next to none of it, even though it would have gone a long way to set up the story arc of the latter.

No one should go see “Straight Outta Compton” in the hopes of learning a great deal about the band members and who they really are. Their stories are largely fictionalized, peppered with the truth that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube want you to know. It’s a fun fiction, yes, but fiction just the same. Tragically, the young gentleman next to us (African-American, no less) did get an unexpected history lesson of another kind, when the film covered the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial. He didn’t know that had happened, and asked if that was real. We confirmed that it was, and as he connected the dots between that and the Michael Brown shooting from last year, it left us both sad, for similar and different reasons.