It can’t be easy making a biopic.
Err to much on the side of leniency and you get a sappy, self-congratulatory, and ultimately meaningless popcorn flick. Err to much on the side of harsh truth and you’ll often get a vicious hatchet job.
Now try doing that while the main character’s still alive.
Suddenly there’s the additional burden of being honest and fair and avoiding litigation at the hands of the offended and his or her legions of lawyers.
Now try doing that with eleven characters at once.
Against all odds, Straight Outta Compton does just that.
Our story begins in ’86, with the voice-overs of news reports on crime, poverty, and gang violence. Against this dismal backdrop we’re introduced to the three founding fathers of gangsta rap. We’ve got the hotheaded and ambitious Eazy-E, presently dealing drugs to get by. Visionary Dr. Dre- he, his wife and daughter living with his mother while he DJs in a cruddy R&B lounge. Ice Cube, getting shaken down by cops and seeing his schoolmates nearly murdered by Bloods. Brought together by equal parts friendship, a knack for music, and the simple ugliness, brutality, and futility of their world, “Ruthless Records” is born, and the nearly formed N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes, for anyone who doesn’t know) begins its meteoric rise to fame.
And that’s just the beginning (seriously, this thing’s over two hours long, and is rumored to have been cut down from a marathon three and a half).
What follows, is, of course, rap history. N.W.A. spits a staccato impeachment of bigotry, police violence, poverty, and gangland violence. The chorus of concerned mothers and conservative crusaders decry what they see as a celebration of crime, misogyny, and violence. N.W.A. rockets from their humble beginnings to one of the most popular and wealthy bands in the nation.
But as the old words of wisdom go, only two things will kill ya- one’s failure, the other’s success. As Cube and his comrades take a closer look at their contracts, deeper and deeper suspicion is placed on Eazy and their collective manager, Jerry Heller. Uneasy alliances and (now legendary) feuds are formed as N.W.A splinters under the weight of its own victories. In the rest of the world, the same violence that N.W.A. documented in their songs continues to simmer, boiling over with the beating of Rodney King and the release of the cops who attacked him.
So begins the now-infamous L.A. riots. Secure within their own private kingdoms, Ice, Dre, and Eazy watch as the same factions that were once devouring each other stand united in an expression of outrage (and using the slogans and music N.W.A. helped create).
Their own vendettas and rivalries put into perspective, talk begins about getting the band back together. Eazy confronts Jay about his shady dealings. Cube swallows his pride. Dre distances himself from the decadence and corruption that his own label had become. The story streamlines itself for one poignant and touching “What if?”
And “what if?” is all it ever was.
Shortly after the resolution, Eazy E was diagnosed with HIV. While E’s tragic death marked the bitter end of any N.W.A. reunion, the film closes on a montage of pretty much every rap artist out there citing N.W.A. as having blazed the trail not only for them but for the the entire genre.
And it’s good.
It’s really, really good.
It’s definitely a slog, but every second is compelling. The soundtrack is awesome, the cinematography is beautiful, and the issues that helped spawn the super group are as relevant today as they were in the early 90s.
You know what I’m talking about.
That I think is the real value of the movie. You can (and we will) question some of its validity as a biopic, but as an unsettling lens through which we can examine our own society, the thing’s damn-near perfect.
While the police certainly aren’t the only subject the film covers, their looming presence is palpable throughout the film. The group’s masterpiece “Fuck Tha Police” is portrayed in the film as to have originated from a profiling incident outside of their recording studio. A particular gripping scene, the group is stopped by a cop car flashing its sirens. The car parks and out steps a black police officer who immediately begins hassling the guys and making pretty free use of the word “nigger”- an eerie callback to a scene at the beginning of the film where the same word gets used by a white cop (the movie’s full of these little connections).
It’s moments like these which really sell Straight Outta Compton. There’s no heavy handed exposition on why what’s happening is bad. The simple reality of the situation is portrayed and the audience is left with the distinct feeling of anger and frustration, but without any biting one-liners or insults to really express it.
Not until the music starts playing:
And that’s how the movie works. Slow build up of a host of emotions with the sudden blare of musical catharsis. The movie is less of a biopic about N.W.A. as it is about the spirit of that particular point in history. The betrayal of the civil rights movement, the simple struggle for survival, the desperation for something substantial, raw, and authentic in a deeply commercialized, domesticated, and empty world. As Cube himself put it “Our art is a reflection of our reality.”
But how’s the movie a reflection of N.W.A?
While the characters are shown with as much humanity as I think could be offered, the simple truth of the matter is that certain crucial elements are missing here. Dr. Dre viciously beat a number of women (including those who were portrayed in the film). While Dre has apologized since then, it’s hardly an excuse for not including it. Same goes for some of the more troubling misogynistic sentiments in some of the character’s music, as well as just how disturbingly antisemitic and homophobic Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline” was. And while the flick covered plenty, MC Ren was hardly in the thing at all and former N.W.A. manager Heller has indicated he might sue over his portrayal as kind of a sleaze.
But let’s not be too quick to judge. Again, it’s been pretty widely rumored that over an hour of footage was left on the cutting room floor, and a much more invasive portrayal of the characters is speculated to be included in a director’s cut.
And then, of course, there’s the music itself. It’s still not uncommon for rap to get a bad-
-well, rap- but still nothing even close to the hatred and revulsion it evoked back in the early 90s (which is surreal considering how comparatively tame it is by today’s standards). While the film does acknowledge the protests against N.W.A., the detractors get probably a whole forty seconds of screen time on the entire movie. Considering how moot the point has become in the past decade, that too might very well be forgiven.
And all that’s just to say there’s not much that can blemish the movie, much less condemn it. It’s good as a movie. It’s good as an illustration of the times it portrayed. It’s good as a reflection on our own. It’s good as a biopic portraying something other than an old white guy. It’s good as a really, really, really long music video.
And I’m not even an N.W.A. fan.