By Kyle G. King. In America’s current climate of police brutality and politically correct watchdogs, the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton – set in the late 80s and early 90s – is sure to leave younger viewers slightly bemused as they wonder, ‘did that actually happen?’. Back then, the LAPD implemented what they called “gang-sweeps”, where they would ride into black neighborhoods and arrest or simply harass anyone and everyone they deemed gang-affiliated. Yes, that really happened, and yes, Straight Outta Compton features it and many other scenes that depict the raw tension between police and black Americans before, during, and after the Rodney King incident in 1991. But as the film aims to showcase the innovative talents of several young men who speak for their oppressed communities, it conveniently omits the dishonorable pieces of the group’s less than heroic history and in turn, sprinkles glitter onto the much more triumphant and emotionally exploitable bits.
In February 1992, music journalist Dee Barnes took Andre Romelle Young (better known as Dr. Dre) to court over a violent incident that resulted her being pummeled to a pulp by the accomplished rapper. Nothing of this event (or any of the other violent episodes Dre had throughout his life) shows up or even bears mention in the overdrawn 147 minute run-time of Straight Outta Compton – in fact Dre is consistently the gentlest and most composed person in each scene. The tragic death of Dr. Dre’s little brother Tyree makes the cut though, to better sculpt Dre’s sympathy and all of N.W.A. as a supportive brotherhood for each other. Though Dre has since admitted to some “horrible mistakes” in his past, the film is a selective and endearingly biased chronicle for Dre and the entire group – certainly not a false narrative, but one that sanitizes its lyrically documented sexist subject matter rather than honestly recounting it.
At the center of the film’s storyline is the relationship of the group’s three most prominent members: Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his real-life father). They meet, they bond, they innovate, they collaborate, and as history shows us, they get some beef. In rap records that span a decade of recordings, the three men – along with N.W.A. members D.J. Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) – feud not so much physically but over recorded verses and song titles. Some of the most fun and original scenes are watching the members react to the diss tracks laid out by former friends and colleges. The bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo of the music business is left to their manager, Jerry (Paul Giamatti as the guy who’s gotta do bad things even though he doesn’t want to); which is just fine and dandy as the film is at its best when left to the 80’s bravado, attitude, and wit made signature by N.W.A., finely captured by its central cast of young newcomers.
The theme of family and brotherhood becomes a bit heavy-handed during the overlong third act, amid the playout of backstabs and betrayals. Instead of ending the saga at a point where most of its audience becomes familiar (the mid 90s), Straight Outta Compton becomes a desperate grab at melodrama and opportunities to provide cameos – Tupac (Marcc Rose), Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and a Snoop Dog that nobody is buying (played by Keith Stanfield) all make appearances. What begins as a movie very relevant to today’s message of black voices and police brutality becomes an indulgent rap drama edging far too close to an awful big budget VH1 movie. The themes, messages, and character arcs are all dressed up in fine style, but they amass to a far-too-thick smoke screen; with the running time edited down from three-and-a-half hours to a still-too-long two-and-a-half, the edited pacing fails anyway and feels like twice that.
A California gangster rap biopic has never looked more authentic and stylish, but that same compliment doesn’t apply to cinematic approach or earnest storytelling in Straight Outta Compton. It’s ironic that the tale of a group so devout in tearing down the walls of systemic oppression is left without accountability to their own actions. Thus stands the filter of a Hollywood film: what really happened isn’t as important as what really sells.