Biopics can go one of two ways — a ritualistic re-telling of a historic caricature or an encapsulation of the conflict and triumph in an individual’s life. Straight Outta Compton, perhaps more sadly than any other, is the former.
The movie goes through the astonishing true story of N.W.A, from its start on the streets of the Los Angeles suburb through its success and breakup until the untimely death of Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) in 1995, primarily focusing on E, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.). The real life Dre and Ice Cube produce the movie.
The best biopics — Bennett Miller is king with Foxcatcher and Moneyball this decade — aren’t accurate, but zero in on the most dramatic aspects of the subject’s life and turn them into a literary masterpiece, then into a cinematic one. Straight Outta Compton does not, and that’s a sad thing, because the lives of E, Dre and Ice Cube are replete with conflict. Filmmakers lacked either the vision or the talent to capture this and make the movie what it could have been.
N.W.A is an inspiring true story of overcoming racism. The film starts in the mid-’80s, one of the high points when the War on Drugs saw police starting firefights more often than they prevented them, particularly in poor minority-populated neighborhoods like Compton. The very first scene is Eazy E using a police raid as a distraction to get away from a deal gone sour. There are scenes later in which Ice Cube is arrested for loitering outside his own home and the entire group is nearly put behind bars for taking a break outside of the recording studio while producing an album, and even if these specific scenes didn’t happen, rising out of poverty as a minority is still an incredible accomplishment because of how institutional racism works.
The band then saw these accomplishments torn apart by pride and greed. These are my very favorite sins, because the conflicts they lead to are so compelling. Ice Cube left the group in 1989 over royalty disputes, and Dre followed in 1991, in both cases leading to a steady stream of diss songs between the rappers. These conflicts are portrayed as matter-of-factly as the rest of the film, with what feels like half an hour dedicated to scenes of Cube reacting to a diss track, then recording one of his own, then E reacting, then recording his own, the Cube reacting, then…
Everybody loved these songs, as well as “Fuck tha Police” which gets similar treatment, but that’s not what you go to the movies to see. I want to see jealousy and arrogance and passion — outbursts, real human passion, the kind that you can’t wait till you’re behind a microphone to express. All these albums are still in record stores. If viewers want to hear the music, they can listen to it in the car on the way to the theater. Movies are about people, and Straight Outta Compton loses that focus.
There’s also an intense internal cultural conflict that isn’t explored in as much depth as it could be. Band members enter a very white-collar world, but throughout the film, they still approach their problems like poor black kids from Compton. This part of the story includes scenes in which E tries to bring a machine gun on tour, the head of Dre’s new label beats E into releasing Dre from his contract and N.W.A sends a crew to attack Ice Cube over “No Vaseline.” Dre’s new manager, Surge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) ostensibly did threaten to kill N.W.A manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and there is record of Dre beating Pump It Up’s Dee Barnes over her coverage of the feud, an incident conspicuously absent from the film.
In a literary sense, this is a great underlying issue, a troublesome and pervasive wrong-headedness, but it’s not highlighted by the film itself and something that really has to be inferred by the viewer.
N.W.A changed the world, and has had a lasting effect on race relations and music. It would have been great to see more of that. This group invented the parental advisory– explicit lyrics sticker, but we only see brief clashes with journalists about promoting violence and clashes with police over the song “Fuck tha Police.” We don’t see conservative groups begging everyone to think of the children or the group fighting against people telling them to stop cussing. The film addresses the Rodney King beating and riots, but only in the context of one Ice Cube interview in which he gets upset that the interviewer is asking him about King. The band had kind of dropped politics and was more focused on dissing each other by that time, but with all that’s going on between black Americans and the police right now, why draw that connection?
Even more ironically, this is the opposite of the truth. Cube’s 1992 album “The Predator” directly addresses the riots, continuing his music’s tendency toward political activism.
All this brings up an uncomfortable question — does this movie have something to say about racism, or is it relying on the viewers’ own biases? Since the Michael Brown shooting, a year ago earlier this week, the U.S. has hosted a steady stream of highly suspect incidents between police and black people that, apparently more often than not, end with the black person dead. Last year’s Selma wrapped up production before Brown’s death, but Straight Outta Compton started shooting a few days after. Movies that address racial issues, from now on, may have to deal with a stigma of piggybacking off these incidents.
There are a lot of ways to bring this film into sharper focus. Eazy E seems to be at the center of all conflict points and the movie is being released 20 years after his death, so focusing more on him as a protagonist would be ideal. Fewer song breaks and a better, more audacious script are called for to take advantage of this rich story. The final product, sadly, is a pretty tame, by-the-book recount of rumors and news items from this period of these people’s lives.
Straight Outta Compton will go into wide release Aug. 14.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Cognitive dissidence is a hell of a drug. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.