You discover a new band and their first album is raw and energetic and full of vicious truth. You get really into them and they tour, hit TV, get popular. They come back for a second album, and you’re pumped and then you listen to it and the whole thing is about touring and being famous and contracts and their shitty management. That’s the experience of watching Straight Outta Compton: the first half is an electric journey through the underground world of early gangsta rap, but the second half is a tedious and by-the-numbers biopic that’s so concerned with contracts and monetary disputes that it feels like the gangstas were replaced with accountants.
The fact that NWA - Niggaz Wit Attitudes, for the newbies in the audience - could get a by-the-numbers biopic is cause for celebration. We have, in the last twenty years, moved to a place where kids from the streets of Compton, rapping profane and shocking things about the broken world around them, can be lionized and sanitized in the way that all the great white artists are. That’s equality in action. It's just a bummer that we're still living in a world where perfunctory musical biopics are the rule.
The first half of Straight Outta Compton is fun and exciting. The movie has a cold open with Eazy-E engaged in a drug deal gone all sorts of wrong - and that’s before a fucking police tank battering rams the front door open. It’s dynamite, a scene that captures the mixture of squalor and glamour of petty drug dealing, the excitement and dead-end nihilism. This is the dance of all gangsta rap - the glorification of the inglourious, the joy of crime crashing up against the despair of the downtrodden. It’s how a gangsta rap album can seamlessly transition from a track about the excitement of dope dealing into a track about being hassled by cops for no reason. Chuck D calls rap ‘Black CNN,’ but this version of CNN has the correspondents doing their reporting in character. Check out these lyrics by Ice Cube on Gangsta Gangsta:
Here's a little somethin' bout a nigga like me
Never should have been let out the penitentiary
Ice Cube would like to say
That I'm a crazy mothafucka from around the way
Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out
Now I'm the muthafucka that ya read about
Takin' a life or two that's what the hell I do
You don't like how I'm livin' well fuck you!
Coming immediately (!) after Fuck Tha Police, which has these lyrics:
Fucking with me cause I'm a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searching my car, looking for the product
Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics
I love this, and it’s the tension between these two perspectives - the point of view of the criminal and the point of view of the civilian caught up in the middle of it all just because he’s black - that makes the album Straight Outta Compton a masterpiece (along with stuff like incredible lyrics, groundbreaking production and killer, eternal beats). And the first half of the movie Straight Outta Compton captures this with absolute perfection. Watching young Ice Cube on a school bus that gets invaded by an angry gang banger who holds a gun to a kid’s head while he gives a motivational speech is a microcosm of one aspect of the crack-era madness of South Los Angeles; the other aspect comes as Cube, school books in hand, gets harassed and roughed up by the cops for the simple crime of walking out of his friends’ house and trying to cross the street. Ice Cube as a smart, motivated kid caught between these extremes is the heart of the first half of the movie, and I loved it. Loved it.
But then the second half… Once Cube leaves the group everything falls apart; what had been a strong narrative devolves into one of those time-hopping biopics where scenes are not connected by drama, but float aimlessly in chronological order. It also devolves into a parade of cameos - Snoop Dogg walks in and sasses Suge Knight, Tupac gets his first listen of the hook to California Love, Dee Barnes manages to not make the cut. The movie hops and skips through time, reducing the release of The Chronic, an all-time great album, to a billboard on Sunset Boulevard and skimming over the Machiavellian evil of Suge Knight, rushing towards a final montage that ends with - I shit you not - Dr. Dre checking his Apple stock.
There’s an interesting way to get there, to contrast the kids with the moguls, but Straight Outta Compton isn’t questioning these guys. It’s MADE BY these guys, and so you end up with a film set in the rap scene of the late 80s and early 90s where the only homophobic slur comes at the end, when Eazy, diagnosed as HIV positive, says “But I’m not a faggot.” And that’s not about the slur, it’s about Eazy’s journey to understanding that HIV is a disease that hits anybody.
The genius members of NWA - Dr. Dre and Ice Cube - were always preternaturally good at managing their images (what we, in this debased modern world, would call their brand), and so it makes sense that they continue doing it here in Straight Outta Compton. These men are establishing their legacy and their mythology, sanding off the edges for posterity. Gangsta rap was always about image - that Cube lyric about him being ‘a crazy mothafucka from around the way’ is pure posturing, but the image he created was indelible.
Of course by sanitizing the group Straight Outta Compton sort of undermines the larger free speech issues surrounding them. We can look at writers and artists from the past whose work was scandalous at the time yet almost anodyne today - imagine still living in the world where Ginsberg’s Howl was the center of an obscenity trial - but NWA does not fit that bill. Their lyrics are, if anything, even more egregious in the 2015 politically correct era; their second album, Efil4zaggin (Niggaz 4 Life backwards, renamed to appease record stores), has a skit called To Kill A Hooker followed immediately by a track called One Less Bitch and they are exactly what you think they are*. The lyrics of Fuck Tha Police, the song at the center of their free speech maelstrom, include Cube pondering whether a cops are ‘fags,’ since they ‘Search a nigga down, grabbing his nuts.’
I’m not complaining about their lyrics - I love their lyrics - but I am saying that while NWA’s music is as challenging today as it was twenty years ago, Straight Outta Compton wouldn’t give you that impression. And that’s a pity, because I think it’s their challenging nature that makes them so fascinating. Free speech battles are more ideologically complicated and rewarding when you’re defending speech you don’t necessarily believe in because you believe all speech should be defended. But it’s a movie, and you have to make it as easy to digest as possible, and you have to make your heroes as easy to digest as well, which means not allowing the messiness that makes transgressive popular artists actually worth talking about.
Last year’s Academy Awards were notable for the stark whiteness of the acting nominees, but this year it will be a crime if that lily whiteness is repeated - not just on a larger social justice level but because there are a bunch of excellent performances in Straight Outta Compton. All three of the NWA-portraying leads are newer actors with a small number of roles under their belts, and each should have great careers moving forward.
Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E especially stands out, not only because his HIV storyline is the most Oscar-grabbing of the bunch but also because he’s excellent. I’ve never particularly liked Eazy and have always been kind of dismissive towards him, but Mitchell finds a heart and soul inside the drug dealer-rapper-mogul that truly touched me. Eazy’s a guy with less talent standing between two giants; music for him wasn’t a dream, it was a way out of the game. But he found that the music game was as rough and duplicitous as the dope game, and his fall plays like real tragedy. He thinks he's the game player, but he is getting played all along.
O’Shea Jackson Jr is, as the name indicates, the son of Ice Cube and there are moments in this film where he looks so much like his dad that it’s disorienting, like this is all some sort of new footage discovered two decades after the fact. Eazy is the tragic figure at the center of the story but Cube is the hero, the true artist who has to follow his own muse/his own contractual problems. Cube has two modes - furrowed brow and goofy grin - and his son nails them both. But more than that he finds the mind behind the lyrics; every musical biopic has scenes where a songwriter gets their inspiration and they’re almost always insufferable, but Jackson must have seen his dad come up with more than a few ideas, and he captures the look in the eyes of a man who just thought of something really good.
Since MC Ren and DJ Yella are pushed to the sidelines (in the movie as well as life) it leaves one last central member of NWA - Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. Dre’s the weirdest character in this movie, presented as sort of passive a lot of the time and going from believing everything manager Jerry Heller says to believing everything Suge Knight says. He’s the only character, until Eazy gets sick, who cries. And he does it a couple of times. I kept pondering the image being cultivated here - Dre as the musical genius lost in the beats, just trying to make good music. Dre’s sort of the George Harrison of this group, in his own weird way.
They’re supported by a big cast, including more than a few people doing celebrity imitations (it’s shameful how Keith Stanfield is wasted in a couple of scenes doing his best Snoop). But there are some supporting performances that are really interesting, one from an established actor and one from a guy who is fairly new to me.
Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, the manager of the band, and the villain of the movie. But Giamatti isn’t just doing Pig Vomit here; there’s a complexity to Heller that makes him fully human - maybe more than he actually is in real life. Heller is predatory but he also believes in the group in a way that no one else does. And at the end of the film, as everyone has gone their own ways, Giamatti gives Heller a legitimate sense of loss, and not just about money. Is that fair or true? I don’t know, but it certainly stops Heller from being a stock villain.
Much more of a stock villain - but a delicious one at that - is R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight. Often shot from low angles and with a big cigar popping out of his mouth, Taylor’s Suge is positively Mephistophelean, a Satanic figure looming in the center of the frame. He comes to Dre at a moment of weakness and all but whispers in his ear the details of an infernal contract. Taylor walks through the movie with a swaggering menace, and when Suge suddenly beats the shit out of a guy for parking in his spot you believe it fully and totally and without question. If the unfocused second half of the film is worth anything it’s worth the opportunity to see Taylor portray the manifestation of hip hop evil.
That second half keeps bothering me. The extended, meandering second half isn’t just bog standard biopic nonsense, it also neuters the film’s most current thematic concerns - the abuses of the police. In the first half of the film the young men of NWA are constant targets of police harassment, a kind of harassment that white viewers might have thought was over the top before Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and too many other dead black men. Ice Cube writes Fuck Tha Police in a white-hot rage after the group is subject to the sort of hassling the SS would find unseemly, and the film builds an outrage towards the mechanisms of the police state that ramps up to a riot that breaks out at a Detroit concert.
That sequence is the heart of the movie; the group is met before the show by a huge contingent of police, and they face off in a parking garage, echoing West Side Story. The cops tell NWA quite simply that they will not tolerate profanity and they will definitely not tolerate the playing of the song Fuck Tha Police… so of course the group waits until the end of the show and plays it as a provocation. Shots ring out and undercover cops - all white, all out of place - cut through the crowd like velociraptors through the wheat in The Lost World, making their way to the stage with badges held high. The band escapes off stage and runs out onto the loading dock where they are met by a phalanx of silent, waiting cops. As the brutality begins kids appear on a walkway above and start hurling flaming trash, chanting ‘Fuck the police!’ The kids swarm the police vans as the band is hauled away.
It’s a perfect moment, the total victory for the group even as they are beaten and arrested. Their defiance is heroic and their message has reached an active audience, one the movie pointedly paints as multiracial. This is where the film should have ended, but it keeps going for another hour or so, putting plenty of distance between us and the brutality of the police. The group’s future run-ins with the law are less troubling - Dr. Dre gets arrested when he’s driving like a total asshole in a car that costs more than most of us will make in five years. Every minute of distance the film puts between the active presence of predatory cops and the audience walking out of the theater dilutes the movie’s indictment of the police. This summer we truly need a big, widely seen movie that sends people out of the theater with the corrupt, racist brutality of the police on their minds first and foremost.
If I’m being harsh on Straight Outta Compton it’s only because the first half is so good. I hate that experience of being very, very wrapped up in a movie only to find myself deflating in the second half, all of my enthusiasm seeping out as I sink lower and lower into my seat. F. Gary Gray has had a long history as a workman director, making plenty of films that are pretty good, and the first half of Straight Outta Compton is the best movie he ever made. If only he hadn't kept going to the second half.
That the film is worth seeing, and seeing in theaters, is without question. This is an important story, even if it does - like the artists themselves, to be fair - sink into self-importance in the back half. But seriously, if you got up and left the theater when Ice Cube leaves the group you wouldn’t be missing too much.
* In total fairness the group's misogyny exploded off the charts after Ice Cube left, and the movie treats them as basically NWA In Name Only after Cube's departure.