The shotgun blast of fury that first emanated from South Central Los Angeles in 1988 still packs a punch.
The new, very much authorized biopic of N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton, aims to cement the legacy of the pioneering hip-hop group that brought gangsta rap to the mainstream and sparked endless culture debates.
Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E — the three most central members of the five-some — were, from the start, the savviest of self-promoters, casting themselves as violent gangsters and exalting the hard streets they came from. So it’s fitting that they should shape their big-screen treatment, too, in a commercial package that’s brashly winning and unapologetically self-serving.
What has time done to N.W.A? Like everything else in their complicated but powerful history, it cuts both ways.
Their brash rebuttal to the aggressive policing policies of the day — most notably their anti-police anthem in which Ice Cube rapped of “the authority to kill a minority” — could hardly be more salient now, and director F. Gary Gray (who helmed Ice Cube’s Friday) drives this home repeatedly in scenes of confrontation with the police. They often silently populate the background, always a hovering threat.
On the other hand, N.W.A’s unremorseful misogyny has been brought back with no added reflection. With the lone exception of Dre’s mother, women are mostly either an annoyance or hedonistic party favors. Unseen is Dre’s assault of TV personality Dee Barnes, whom he was convicted of repeatedly slamming against a brick wall.
But fully unpacking N.W.A and the era of hip-hop the group kicked off remains a fool’s errand. Straight Outta Compton, besides, is built on the abiding fierceness of the music, the unlikeliness of their hood-to-Hollywood journey and a talented young cast that handles the heavy weight of playing icons with unusual skill.
Especially entertaining are the early scenes that assemble the group: the pugnacious lyricist Ice Cube (Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.); Easy-E, the older hustler with enough cash to pay for recording sessions (Jason Mitchell); Dr. Dre, the ambitious DJ schooled in James Brown and Funkadelic (Corey Hawkins); MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.).
They’re most charming before the braggadocio has completely set in. Sitting around the recording studio, they laugh at the gap between their lives and their lyrics. While rapping about rolling in 6-4s, they note Easy-E is the only one with a car.
Their rise is incredibly fast. The first single, Boyz-n-the-Hood, draws in manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who remains a pivotal figure throughout the film as both the group’s biggest champion and, later, as a dividing force.
Too profane for radio play, they emerge as an underground sensation, soon filling arenas and drawing the skeptical eye of the FBI. They revel in the women and the money, but fissures immediately crack open. The splitting into solo acts — first Ice Cube, then Dr. Dre to join Marion “Suge” Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), seen here as a genuine thug — happens as fast as the ascent.
Straight Outta Compton begins, for better and worse, to lose its traditional biopic shape. The diverging stories are too unwieldy, the bonds among the group too quickly severed. A huge, sprawling music scene is born; Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) make cameos. Contract disputes, not music, take over the spirited but lengthy narrative.
The film, produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, begins to feel like a compromise of Rashomon perspectives: old friends still assigning blame (mostly on Heller and Knight), working through guilt (Easy-E died in 1995 after contracting AIDS) and finding a flattering version of the past they can all live with, even if it means touching on fiction.
But the movies — particularly the studio-made, summer variety — are seldom what you would call “hard.” Nor do they make a habit of telling the stories of searing, provocative black voices that rise out of urban nightmares. Straight Outta Compton never forgets where its stars came from, and neither should we.
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Paul Giamatti, Cara Patterson.
Director: F. Gary Gray.
Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 142 minutes. Language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, drug use. Playing at area theaters.