How does one review a film like Straight Outta Compton? This is not the best made movie, but it is very entertaining. This is not the most honest movie, but there’s enough truth to make it worthwhile. I recommend trying to view the film in context. I was 15 when the album came out. The straight-laced kid that I was, I would believe the public narrative told to me by the media which had latched onto this rap group N.W.A and believe they were writing ugly, vulgar songs that glorified killing police and mistreating women. Public displays of angry mobs burning their records would show up on the tv. When I was younger, I would wonder why anyone would want to make such angry, mean music that seemed to have an ugly message.
As an adult with a more educated and reasoned approach I can listen to Straight Outta Compton with an ear towards it being a reflection of what Ice Cube, Easy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella were feeling. A reaction towards the relationship of people of color to the police, the system, the everything. Let’s not forget that the Los Angeles Police Department is not as famous as it is for having been the most guilt-free organization. Quite the opposite.
Now where N.W.A’s desire to sell records and make money meets with an actual need to expose the treatment of the people they knew is hard to delineate. It’s an argument I’ve heard people make to somehow weaken the importance of what N.W.A did. Today with Black Lives Matter being so on the forefront of people’s minds, a movie like Straight Outta Compton reminds us, despite all its flaws, that the dots have been getting connected for years. That capitalizing on the anger out there to sell records does not change the fact that people are angry and want a voice. If the so-called vulgarity and violence of the music were just some bizarre fantasy dreamt up in the tortured mind of a studio exec, I don’t believe it would have caught on and been as important as it was.
And so the movie should be viewed more as a documentation of the vibe, the feeling, the idea of the times. Focusing mostly on Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube, it follows the rise and fall of N.W.A. The peak of their careers together and the subsequent fall out that lead to massive solo successes, the formation of Death Row Records, and the untimely death of Easy-E. There are a couple of main failings of the film. Firstly that there is far, FAR too much content to be done in a single film. The original cut I heard was 3.5 hours long. The final cut is 2 hours 27 minutes. But in reality this story needs its own mini-series because an incredible amount of material is covered and yet Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are still alive, still producing, still successfully making art. There seems to be no natural ending point and to get in what they do, much is glossed over in really thick ways. Events are combined, dialogue is as broad as it can possibly be. The ideas are presented, not the details. And this is a shame. Much is made of how manager Jerry Heller is misleading the group and mishandling the books to benefit himself and steal from his artists. Except, no detail is given. You have to just believe coarsely worded back and forth moments that amount to:
N.W.A member: “You’re stealing from us.”
Jerry: “I’m doing this for us.”
N.W.A member: “I’m outta here.”
There’s another example in which Ice Cube has a mental breakdown and destroys the office of his new manager for not paying Cube what he’s owed for the work on his incredibly successful debut solo album. The manager’s explanation of why he’s not paying anybody amounts to a shoulder shrug and a winky face. In fact, that would have been better because why have dialog if you’re not going to say anything useful?
These kinds of moments abound. Partly out of necessity, partly out of my perceived laziness (although it’s hard to call anyone lazy who spends 13 years making this film happen), and partly out of what feels like a fear of looking bad. There can be no doubt the importance of this set of rap artists. But having Dr. Dre and Ice Cube be producers on their biopic and Ice Cube’s own son playing his father in the film, there’s a certain lack of transparency. N.W.A come out looking like slightly dirty, overly sexual choir boys with guns. Dre is just a guy who wants to sling records. Cube is just a guy who wants to be treated fairly. Easy E is a 5 minute drug dealer that quickly becomes the orchestrator of massive success with only the best of intentions. And while I’ve heard that some scenes left on the cutting room floor take a harder look at themselves, one scene supposedly being Dr. Dre beating up a reporter, the movie tends to go easy on the principals and hard on everyone else.
Suge Knight’s portrayal is one they certainly didn’t let up on. The man, currently indicted for murder, has all of his menace combined into a few moments of readily digestible evil. Getting out of a car and pistol whipping a man into a pulp for parking in Suge’s spot is a standout. My guess is what they did show wasn’t even the worst, but time and thought towards what an audience wants to watch gave us the broad depiction we needed to understand. Just like at the end of the film when Dr. Dre announces he’s leaving to form his own label, Suge threateningly asks what it’ll be called. Dre ponders for a moment and announces “Aftermath.”
In my head I have trouble believing this is how it went down, one simple conversation and the sudden decision on a brand name. But once again, so much content is already covered, there wasn’t really time to dive in more. Maybe more should be cut; there are some laughably bad moments where a youthful Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg make appearances as possible new talent. Dre listens to them rap, says something along the lines of “you’re really good, you should try rapping to this thing I’ve cooked up”, then leans back, presses a button, and unleashes from his speakers the complete and fully produced track minus vocals that would turn into each artists most famous song. Another crazily abrupt scene has Dre’s girlfriend and kid showing up for the first time in the film just to say goodbye forever. This is the easy way at which Compton plays broadly with ideas, facts, and events.
All the police are bad, managers are bad, the central rappers are good and misunderstood. All the nuance of the reality is lost. But if you step back and recognize that the film Straight Outta Compton is broadly exhibiting the life, motivation, and reasoning of the players involved in making the album Straight Outta Compton which broadly exhibits the life, motivation and reasoning of the people living in South Los Angeles, then you can really enjoy and understand what’s going on. You might even find it motivating.
I think a bit more unflinching self examination is in order and I’d love a mini-series or a Ken Burns style documentary instead. But for what it is, this is worthwhile. My youthful self is happy he grew up and can re-examine his beliefs from the past and have things put into better context. If you’re easily offended by language or still harbor angry thoughts about the scourge of gansta rap and the downfall of American society, this movie will drive you nuts. But watch it anyway. At 147 minutes it plays like 3 hours. This is both positive and negative. Seen out of context this movie could falter in 30 years for being poorly drawn art. Seen in context, it’s worth the time.