The content of a biopic can be projected based on who is involved in its creation. Certain filmmakers are known for delivering uncensored, controversial portrayals of celebrated figures. However if the subject(s) of the film are still alive and specifically if they are credited with some aspect of the movie’s production, it’s expected that they also had a hand in the direction of the story; therefore, it’s unlikely the picture will be contentious or considered an exposé. Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and fall of 80s rap group N.W.A. and is produced by two of its surviving members.
In the early days before the group’s formation, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was running drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning in a local dance club with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) was writing rhymes on the school bus. But one night of putting Cube on stage confirmed for Dre that there was a market for their style of truth-telling in music. With MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.), they formed N.W.A. and their first single was a radio hit. This earned them the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a has-been manager that offers to help the group and Ruthless Records grow beyond a local sensation. Their first album, “Straight Outta Compton,” soared on Billboard and led to a national tour. But not everyone felt as if they were getting their fair share of the profits. The group gradually fell apart under the strain of distrust and debt, leading to a feud that wouldn’t be resolved for years.
While their narrative is an inspiring one, this is obviously a sanitized version of N.W.A.’s real history. It doesn’t take long to realize the movie is the story Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — who are also producers on the film — want to tell audiences. And the fact that director F. Gary Gray has worked with the artists before is further confirmation of its conformity. Even though it doesn’t conceal Eazy’s illicit dealings or Cube’s temper, they are all still depicted as victims. Like most music biopics, it shows how everyone took advantage of their talent and inexperience; they turned out the hits while other people lined their pockets. Unsurprisingly, Giamatti appears comfortable in the familiar role of duplicitous mentor. However the FBI’s interest in the group and its view on authority gives their account a little extra flavour.
Beyond the unfairness they encountered in the industry, the film also aims to represent the discrimination they regularly experienced outside the studio. Police harassment was almost a daily occurrence as they are repeatedly stopped for standing while black. In the midst of the Rodney King incident, N.W.A.’s song “[email protected]$% Tha Police,” which was born from inequity, became the anthem for a disenfranchised community. Footage from the riots after the not guilty verdicts are shown as if through the eyes of the group’s members, free of judgement but reeking of despair. It’s impossible not to see the parallel between the police violence of then and now, the subtext being that little has changed in 30 years.
In spite of its contrived account, it’s still a solid film that is entertaining and informative for anyone not already familiar with N.W.A.’s origins and not eager for a tell-all. It’s surprising to realize the group was only complete for one album and semi-complete for a second before its disintegration; that fact speaks to the impact they had on the music industry and audiences. The cast is well-suited to their roles both in appearance and manner (with Cube’s son actually portraying his younger self). Even the secondary characters based on real people are perfectly matched with Keith Stanfield’s Snoop Dogg earning honourable mention. The concert footage feels authentic as does the energy and momentum that propelled N.W.A. to stardom.