The beginning stretch of Straight Outta Compton culminates in Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), black rapper with N.W.A, striking a tentative deal with white manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Heller sells his usefulness with frankness, pitching that he can get Eazy-E and N.W.A through doors that would otherwise remain closed to them. He can, in his words, legitimise them.
He’s talking about the stifling racism inherent within the music industry at the time (which still occurs now). That a black group of musicians from their particular zipcode would not be taken seriously at any executive meeting. Because the gangsta rap music that they create wouldn’t be recognised as either credible or a bankable commodity. Eazy-E recognises the ugly truth in this, and so they strike a deal. Now, over 25 years later, the film Straight Outta Compton looks set to legitimise gangsta rap as it is viewed by Hollywood (an even larger, far more racist constitution). How? By embracing the classic presentation of the biopic, and packaging the N.W.A story with shining, occasionally varnished clarity.
Eazy-E aka Eric Wright didn’t live to see his legacy lionised this way, but key group members Dr Dre and Ice Cube are on hand here to ensure that the film presented is the film they want. Both take exec producer credits and the film is directed by F. Gary Gray, a longtime collaborator. Straight Outta Compton even includes a brief scene of Ice Cube writing the script for Friday which Gray would direct. This is their film, and while it is pragmatic to a degree, there is a sense of softened history throughout.
But then, that’s the world of the Hollywood biopic; the lens through which this tale is being told.
In that context, Straight Outta Compton is a remarkably assured film, especially the first hour in which we are introduced to Eazy-E, Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr – Ice Cube’s own son) along with fellow N.W.A. members DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). This confident opening stretch charts their troubled ascendance to international stardom. In truth, the film sidelines all members aside from its core trio of Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube, presenting their narrative through line from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s.
What impresses greatly first and foremost are these young leads. Jackson, Jr’s physical similarity to his father is a great coup for the film, but it’d be for nothing if he didn’t back it up with the presence and acting skills required. He’s a mini revelation here, and Hawkins and Mitchell are right on his heels. At no point does the veneer drop. They are all totally convincing and very charismatic to watch also.
Behind the camera Gray makes sure he is making the film worthy of such assured performances. Straight Outta Compton has the look, feel and sound of a Michael Mann film at times. It feels efficient and evocative of its era and place. Granted, we’re not dipping too far back into the past, but it still sells itself, while in the process moving along fluidly and engagingly.
There’s a lot to pack in here, and screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman keep the momentum up for a good hour and a half as the story concerns itself with N.W.A. Once the narrative gets past this, however, the frequent troubles of the biopic reassert themselves, and while the film doesn’t nosedive, it certainly hurts from the breaking of the fellowship and therefore the slackening of that tightness felt early on. Dre, Cube and Eazy-E go their separate ways, partake in solo careers, gets wrapped up in money concerns, and the film begins to feel more like cliffnoting as it goes on. Time accelerates. Until, by the end credits, we’re into documentary footage and the years blur by.
But this is, to some extent, how these films work. The biopic is one of the most frustrating genres because lives are not the same shapes as movies and rarely tie up with a satisfying denouement. Eazy-E’s death of AIDS caps the movie as a sentimental but respectful ode to the work covered and the lives involved. It’s an understandable place to stop in a journey that’s still ongoing for those still working.
Yet, if taken with this expectation in mind, Straight Outta Compton still rises above most others in its field at the moment, certainly feeling more energised and interesting than the nice-but-soft Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy which graced our screens recently. Incidentally, both films feature Paul Giamatti in untrustworthy supporting roles. Thankfully he is a little toned down here compared to his pantomime performance as Dr. Eugene Landy, nevertheless, his star presence almost upends his appearance as Jerry Heller. In a film which convinces most with its fresh faces, the most recognisable one somehow carries the least credibility. Giamatti still brings something great to the table though, and some of his late scenes with Jenkins’ Eazy-E remind the viewer why he’s such a bankable supporting actor in today’s Hollywood.
Echoing the masterful Selma from earlier this year, Straight Outta Compton also resonates when depicting the racism and violence of it’s era as it reflects upon America in 2015. There’s a bristling anger here that isn’t just directed at the events of the the time but also, one senses, their perpetuation today. It’s dangerous to talk about movies as important. So often legacies are only written with the passing of time. But Straight Outta Compton feels like a small milestone for Hollywood as it slowly comes to terms with responding to the hateful virus that’s plagued Los Angeles and all of America for decades.
Whether the likes of Selma and Straight Outta Compton turn out to be gateway films for further celluloid conversations on the topic of race and injustice remains to be seen. For now, as summer turns to autumn, F. Gary Gray has crafted an overlong but largely superb biopic that’s filling cinemas the way some recent comic book movies have failed to. There are issues here; some elements of the story hold too much sway, while others are footnoted (Dre’s home life is suggested but never particular investigated) and the sprawl of the last hour makes the film feel ultimately uneven. Yet taken as a whole and in the context of the genre, this is a great production worth making some time for even if you’re not initiate in its subject.