The story of pioneering L.A. gangsta rappers N.W.A. (as dictated and co-produced by the now-bazillionaire N.W.A.’ers themselves), Straight Outta Compton is among the most potent rags-to-riches showbiz movies ever made. It’s not the music itself that puts the film over, although hard-core bangers like "Fuck tha Police" still trigger both your exultation and fight-or-flight response. It’s the density of detail — along with jagged, hand-held camerawork that evokes a war zone — that renders the trauma universal. It’s how the movie makes you see the world through the eyes of Andre Young (a.k.a. Dr. Dre), O’Shea Jackson (a.k.a. Ice Cube), and Eazy-E (Eric Wright); and so the meaning, the urgency, at times the necessity of even the most obscene, vainglorious, and incendiary rhymes emerge with thrilling clarity.
I know, millions of people didn’t need a biopic to understand that urgency — or need, for that matter, my white-mansplainin' of the roots of gangsta rap. But Straight Outta Compton aims to cross cultures and sanctify the wisdom of the street — to make a universal underdog story. It succeeds on a visceral level. Directed by F. Gary Gray from a shapely, often subtle script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the film depicts a world that’s a series of confrontations, one swiftly following the next. The cops manhandle and go nose-to-nose with young black men, their attacks a test of manhood to be met with casual defiance, with heads held high. But damage is also done by other black men, who put their own pride on the line in dances of dominance and submission.
Nearly every scene centers on intense negotiations for power and dignity. The film opens with a sequence in which dope dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) challenges a bigger, better-armed group of other dealers — until the LAPD rolls a tank through the side of the house. (I thought the cops saved the young fool’s life, actually.) Dre (Corey Hawkins) makes the mistake of razzing a Crenshaw Mafia soldier from a bus and gets a pistol cocked in his face. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.!) — who supplies all the rhymes — bristles from the start at being shortchanged.
But the chests of these three men — plus DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) — visibly swell when their music starts coming. Their wariness and jitters are transmuted; by proclaiming their power, they become powerful. This is not art for art’s sake, though. At the first whiff of a breakthrough, they say, “Let’s go get this money.” The conspicuous consumption and scores of unclothed women are not a by-product of the group’s celebrity. They’re the point of it. They’re something more to flaunt onstage. In some ways, making money and boasting about it is their art.
Much of Straight Outta Compton turns on N.W.A.’s relatively swift dissolution, here blamed squarely on their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), whose strategy is divide and conquer. Despite his reassurances (“Everybody knows how important you are, Ice Cube,” says Giamatti in his basso purr), he favors Eazy — who promptly sells out the more talented Dre and Cube. But for much of the film, writers Herman and Berloff (along with Giamatti) resist making Heller an easy villain. He’s part guardian angel. He gets their music instantly. He pitches them fervently. He stands up to brutal, abusive cops (You n-----s supposed to be somewhere?”) outside the recording studio in Torrance, California — among them a black officer who can’t conceive of rap being “art.” He treats Eazy with genuine tenderness. In other scenes, though, Giamatti telegraphs Heller’s duplicity, his eyes signaling his lies. The portrait has been vigorously disputed by the real Heller, but, as Amos Barshad reminds us in a Grantland Heller interview, “History is written by the winners.”
The loser of N.W.A. was, of course, Eazy, and as magnetic as Hawkins’s and Jackson’s performances are, it’s Mitchell’s who comes to dominate the film. Everything that makes his Eazy difficult to like in the first two thirds make him impossible not to pity in the last. It was Eazy’s desperate need for respect that made him ripe for Heller’s machinations, and when his fortunes collapse, he has nothing to fall back on — no resources, no discipline, and, truth to tell, not as much talent as the bullying Cube and the virtuosic Dre. He’s a character of tragic proportions.
With so many players calling the creative shots, the screenwriters can’t fully flesh out the connection between the characters’ oppression by society and their subsequent oppression of others — a theme of such magnificent dramas as August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The movie’s Dre has been stripped of a dark side. There’s no hint of the accusations against him of repeated physical abuse, and the film suggests that he was too naïve to understand the true malignancy of his next manager, Suge Knight (the incredibly credible R. Marcos Taylor), until Knight became positively Caligula-like. Ice Cube’s defense of the group’s misogyny in the latest Rolling Stone (“If you're a bitch, you're probably not going to like us. If you're a ho, you probably don't like us ... I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we're talking about her”) has no onscreen correlative.
But I wouldn’t call Straight Outta Compton a whitewash. There’s no way to soften this music, and the soundtrack — a brilliantly seamless mix of new (actors’) and classic performances — keeps the movie in the present tense. So do recent street scenes eerily reminiscent of the late ‘80s under LAPD chief Daryl Gates. (The film gives us another look at the beating of Rodney King — along with the legal exoneration of the officers who beat him.) One of the high points of the movie is in Detroit, where a particularly saturnine police chief orders N.W.A. not to play "Fuck tha Police" or they’ll be hauled off to jail. The band, of course, makes the song the concert’s thunderous set piece.
What happens next, though, is superbly double-edged: pandemonium, brutal suppression of free speech, band members seized and thrown into the back of a van. But as the audience is shaking with rage, the members of N.W.A. burst into celebratory laughter. They know the near-riot will be all over the news. They know there’s gold in that suppression.