Straight Outta Compton

Like its subject, the NWA biopic is exhilarating, abrasive, and peaks early.

Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Jason Mitchell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., and Corey Hawkins in Straight Outta Compton.
From left to right: Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Corey Hawkins in Straight Outta Compton.

Photo by Universal Pictures

The opening track on Eazy-E’s 1988 LP Eazy-Duz-It begins with a spooky baritone voice offering an unexpected challenge to the well-meaning soul who has just placed the cassette tape in his boombox. “Now that you got the album,” the voice intones, “what the fuck are you going to do with it, bitch?” (The emphasis is very much in the original.)

It’s a strange way to welcome listeners, especially to a debut album. But Eazy-E was never one for pleasantries, and it’s always struck me as the perfect introduction to the diminutive hustler-turned-rapper. This is an artist who, in his first hit, “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” described murdering an old friend with a 12-gauge shotgun for trying to steal an Alpine speaker out of his car. Eazy’s music was an outrageous provocation, and an irresistible one. What are you going to do with the album? If you were like me, you kept listening to it, because you’d never, ever heard anything like it.

The origins of this no-holds-barred style of rap is the subject of Straight Outta Compton, which recounts the rise of Eazy and his compatriots Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. On the strength of “Boyz-n-the-Hood”—which Ice Cube wrote and Dre produced—the three would go on to form the supergroup NWA. Their first album, also called Straight Outta Compton, touched off a revolution that put West Coast hip-hop on the map, and in a very specific corner of it: the blighted bungalows of Compton, California.

The film is produced by Dre and Cube (along with Eazy’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright, among others), and even fans of those two might justifiably worry that they’re in for little more than legend-burnishing from a pair of aging stars eager to relive their halcyon days as gun-toting, eight-ball–swilling rebels. Both men have long since settled into a very comfortable middle age. Ice Cube is now a pitchman for Coors Light and an able player of the put-upon dad in children’s entertainment. Dre, while still a rap impresario, is as well-known today for his lucrative foray into the headphone business as for his work on a mixing board.

Straight Outta Compton is, undoubtedly, a nostalgia trip, but, this being NWA, it’s one you take in a ’64 Impala with height-adjustable suspension. It’s a loud, stylish ride, one that rewards but does not require a working memory of the shock that accompanied NWA’s arrival on the hip-hop scene. And while no one will mistake this for a protest film—there are too many pool parties—the movie’s portrait of a militarized police force all too eager to assault young black men can’t help but resonate in our own moment. The hard truths of NWA’s reportage (“police think they have the authority/ to kill a minority,” Ice Cube rapped on “Fuck tha Police”) and the unbridled anger that fueled the group’s work sadly feel no less pertinent in the era of Michael Brown as in that of Rodney King.

NWA mixed a brew of hedonism, nihilism, and misogyny (“life ain’t nothing but bitches and money,” in the group’s pithy summation) that could have been toxic, but it worked, in part, due to the charisma of the rappers, who breathed an infectious, anarchic spirit into the music. “We don’t Just Say No,” Ice Cube barked on “Gangsta Gangsta,” in a retort to the Reagan-era War on Drugs. “We’re too busy saying yeeaah!” It’s a tall order to channel that kind of magnetism, but the lead actors in Straight Outta Compton are more than up to the task, evoking the young rappers to an almost disconcerting degree.

In the case of Ice Cube, this is a function of genetics as much as casting—he’s played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., his own son, though even by the standards of Mendelian inheritance the resemblance to the teenage Cube is uncanny. It’s not just that he looks the part, however—he’s mastered his father’s ability to shift from simmering intensity to sly playfulness and back with little more than the curl of a lip. The relatively unknown Corey Hawkins gives emotional dimension to Dre, the most laconic of the trio, showing a more vulnerable side of the hard-nosed, golden-eared producer. Most impressive of all is fellow newcomer Jason Mitchell, whose Eazy-E is a frightening coil of bravado and insecurity, the Napoleon of Crenshaw Boulevard.

Director F. Gary Gray is probably best known for his work on Friday, the stoner hip-hop classic, but he may have gathered more pertinent experience for this film on the set of his zippy 2003 remake of The Italian Job. Half the fun of a heist film comes in the assembling of the crack team that will pull off the caper, and that’s certainly the case here. When the movie opens, Dre is marooned spinning records at a club that won’t let him play hardcore hip-hop, Cube is writing rhymes on the bus home from a school in the suburbs where the kids listen to Tears for Fears, and Eazy is dodging well-armed drug dealers and LAPD batterrams. We know how potent these talents and histories will be when they finally link up, and it’s a thrill watching it slowly dawn on them, too.

Capturing the creative process on film is always difficult, but Gray chooses his moments wisely. An early scene in which Eazy is coaxed into the recording booth by Dre (he had originally intended to be a silent partner; “I’m the Berry Gordy of this shit,” he protests) is especially effective, by turns funny and exhilarating. Forcing him to take and retake a single line—Cruising down the street in my six-four—Dre molds the reluctant Eric Wright into the swaggering Eazy-E right before our eyes.

Straight Outta Compton, the full-length album they ultimately record together (along with lesser lights DJ Yella and MC Ren), represents an inflection point in the history of rap. But unlike another seminal 1988 hip-hop album, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Straight Outta Compton is far from a wire-to-wire masterpiece. Its outsized influence stems largely from just its first three songs: The agenda-setting title track, the incendiary “Fuck tha Police,” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” which gave a name to the group’s sound: gangsta rap. Gray’s film peaks early too, in its account of the group’s formation and swift rise to prominence and notoriety. Once the album has caught fire and NWA is selling out shows across the country, the film loses some of its momentum.

It’s at this point that the drama shifts from the artists’ rebellion against their bleak circumstances and an unsympathetic music industry to the less engaging in-fighting that inevitably attends a band’s stratospheric rise. The dissolution of NWA over contract disputes with their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, lightly noshing the scenery) lacks the appeal of their rags-to-riches origin story, though there are occasional highlights. Most notable is the sequence in which Gray cleverly intercuts Ice Cube’s recording of the vicious diss track “No Vaseline” with a scene of the remaining members of NWA wincing as they listen to their erstwhile bandmate turn the ire he once reserved for the men in blue back on them.

Another flaw is more serious. It may sound obtuse to chastise this biopic for misogyny, when its subjects are notorious for their poor treatment of women, both in their lyrics and, in some cases, outside them. But it’s not too much to ask that the 2015 film refrain from falling prey to the retrograde attitudes of the 1988 album. One scene that might have been an occasion to take a hard look at the group’s troubling treatment of the female sex—a raucous tour party that nearly turns violent—is ultimately played for cruel laughs. Elsewhere women are little more than props, parading around the pool wearing (in the phrase of one of NWA’s less hard-edged contemporaries) less than bikinis.

Once the group is finally dissolved, the film plods to its conclusion, dutifully chronicling the remaining biographical milestones of its stars: Dre’s discovery of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube’s flirtation with the Nation of Islam, the deterioration of Eazy’s health (dramatized unsubtly by a series of uh-oh coughing fits that may at first suggest to NWA neophytes that the rapper died of consumption, not complications from AIDS). It’s only after Eazy’s death that it becomes clear how essential he’s been to the action up to that point. Though he never enjoyed the post-NWA success of Dre or Cube, and wasn’t around to ensure that this film would cast him in a sympathetic light, Eazy is the fast-beating heart and tortured soul of the movie. That’s either Dre and Cube’s tribute to the fallen comrade who put up the money for that first recording session, which started it all, or a tribute to the irrepressibleness of the man who didn’t think he could rap, then made it look easy.