Straight Outta Compton is a biopic of the influential NWA and follows the typical beats of the music biopic. You can guess how the film plays out – from the early meetings as slumming musicians to the energy and excitement of the first inspiration to the wild success, debauchery and lawsuits. However, there is something different about Straight Outta Compton that makes it initially stand out – it’s angry, political outsider status.
Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, Ice Cube’s real-life son) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) are the focus of the film. Key moments includes the controversy of the NWA song ‘Fuck Tha Police’, the band’s arrest in Detroit for playing the same song, the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings and the various disputes between the members of the band and their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and individual labels following the dissolution of the band.
The film is executive produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, so it is easy to think of the film as a clean, officially sanctioned view of the two of them. Though it is true that a healthy degree of scepticism is required towards any music biopic, Straight Outta Compton does display a certain even-handedness, given that Ice Cube and Dre themselves were on opposing sides of several disputes. Much of the blame is placed on Jerry Heller (who is now suing) and on Eazy-E (who died of AIDS in 1995), but Ice Cube and Dre are not free from some blame.
Having said that, this somewhat messy film is not particularly interested in the ins-and-outs of any of these legal disputes. In fact, it is difficult to work out what exactly the film’s main focus is. It hits the typical beats but in such a desultory way that it can be difficult to work out what is going on. The film ends suddenly with Dre announcing that he is leaving Death Row Records to start his own label, a non-ending that would suggest erroneously that the focus of the film has been Dre’s growing independence. It is an oddly restrained ending to a film that so frequently verges on craziness. Indeed, the messiness of the film is part of its appeal, the film acting more as a collection of big moments rather than a sustained piece. The sequence of the genesis of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is great – moving from a tense and humiliating confrontation with some racist police straight into the recording of the song and, later, the performance in Detroit – capturing the anger that helped create the song but also the social situation that made the song matter.
Less successful is the film’s attempts to deal further with the socio-political situation, particularly the Rodney King beating, the subsequent trial and the LA riots. The film shifts with great difficulty between these scenes and further scenes of band members squabbling and trying to get out of contracts. The film never regains the balance between the politics of resistance and the music, and these two strands of the film end up belittling each other. Equally, the film does represent a good deal of misogyny and one mention of anti-Semitism, but only to acknowledge that it existed, never to question it. The film might transcend the formula of the music biopic thanks to the politics of the band, but the film itself has nothing to do with it. Given the current situation in America – where the music of NWA feels positively contemporary – there was the possibility of making a film about NWA that would have been as shocking, angry, defiant and unapologetic as the band’s music. But nowhere in this film is there a moment to equal even Spike Lee’s opening to his otherwise fairly safe biopic Malcolm X in which footage of the Rodney King beating, a contemporary issue at the time that the film came out, is intercut with a burning American flag. Straight Outta Compton could have made a convincing argument for the band’s continuing relevance or adapted the criticism to 2015 in much the same way that last year’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which fared much better in making the argument for both the music’s socio-political significance both then and now. Instead, we get weird moments such as Ice Cube laughing his head off at the script to Friday (directed by F. Gary Gray himself) and a closing montage celebrating, amongst other things, Ice Cube’s performance in XXX: State of the Union and Dr Dre’s Beats headphones (flogged often enough in several music videos). Here, the film feels like a cash-in, and watching it, one could forget that this is a film about a band that frightened the FBI. The film could and should have been just as radical as the music. Sadly, we are left with the safe story of unsafe music, with a politics of resistance diluted for the mainstream and a contemporary phenomenon relegated to the past.
Straight Outta Compton then is a watchable film with some great moments, but it is tame when it should have been challenging. Unlike with ‘Straight Outta Compton’ the album, one is left wondering ultimately if the film’s main aim is box office and awards, rather than a valuable contribution and a voice. Perhaps there is a case to be made that putting these ideas into the mainstream is the best way to effect change, but it does feel that no one here is expressing with their full capabilities.