NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton heralds a new era in hip hop’s near 35-year relationship with the movies, a period that can be broken down into several distinct parts. The 1980s for example saw the transition from docudramas like Wild Style, Breakin’ and Beat Street to comedy star vehicles for the likes of The Fat Boys and Kid n’ Play. The 1990s saw a proliferation of crime and hood dramas – from Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City to John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood – before a slew of comic films (Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood, the NWA mockumentary CB4) began to lampoon the posturing and career choices of gangsta rappers. A decade later 8 Mile and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ were the highest profile releases, both of which were vehicles for Eminem and 50 Cent that used fictional characters based almost entirely on the earlier lives and careers of their stars (with very different results: 8 Mile remains one of the best hip hop movies to date, while Get Rich is unequivocally one of the worst).
Now, however, hip hop finally has a successful, straight-up music biopic (and the most financially-rewarding one of all time, to boot, delighting cultural commentators by knocking Walk The Line off its perch). It’s long overdue, and the strong box office showing of F. Gary Gray’s film will presumably pave the way for more of the same; at the very least a decent dramatic film needs to be made about the birth of hip hop or, perhaps more specifically, the careers of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, while the brief incursion into the world of Death Row Records in Straight Outta Compton suggests a drama about Suge Knight’s label will surely arrive one day (when someone is brave enough to write it). Whatever happens in the future there’s a sense now that the hip hop-related movie has finally come of age, and it’s probably safe to say now that we are in mid-September that this film has been the surprise hit of the summer.
Whether it’s actually that good or not is a moot point, and one that seems to have divided critics. In telling the story of NWA – the culturally significant, commercially successful and controversial Compton-based group featuring Dr Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren, Eazy-E, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube – Gray’s entertaining film follows many of the usual musical biopic conventions, dutifully detailing the rise, the fall, the highs, the lows, the breakdown of relationships, the reconciliations, the slick record company money men who don’t ‘get’ the artists and the teary moments (the premature death of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) at the age of 31 in 1995 gradually dominates the final act, though there’s a business-related epilogue tacked on as Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves Death Row to start his own label, Aftermath). Yet despite the familiarity of much of this material we haven’t really seen it applied to African-American artists from the past 30 or 40 years before, and certainly not to a hip hop group with this kind of history and background. Although they’re not filmed in an original way or outstanding fashion the scenes in recording studios and the re-staged live footage crackle with an energy that has been missing from all of the recent rock or jazz biopics that I’ve seen, give or take one or two sporadic scenes.
Straight Outta Compton packs plenty of punches into its long, 135-minute running time, most notably detailing the abuse the group’s members suffered at the hands of the police in the late ’80s and early ’90s (parallels with the Rodney King beating are drawn, and footage of the subsequent LA riots of 1992 is included). That said, the director and writers (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) have given the other outbreaks of violence that dogged NWA’s career an overly glossy sheen, or in some cases completely omitted them: there’s a frisson of excitement to be had watching tough, aggressive men repeatedly go head-to-head with other tough, aggressive men in hotel corridors, recording studios, meeting rooms, restaurants and so on, but in order to sweeten the story for mainstream cinema audiences the more controversial misogyny of Dr. Dre’s early life has been omitted (as widely reported, though it’s no surprise really, given that he’s one of the film’s producers).
As long as interested parties are still alive I dare say a great deal more unpalatable material has been left out too, but that can be applied to countless musical biopics, most of which are made with the intention of cementing a legend rather than deconstructing a myth. While the misogyny is the most obvious and serious omission, it’s also worth noting that the film trivialises the contributions of DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), keeping both firmly in the background while Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr, the rapper’s real life son) are placed front and centre; MC Ren took to social media to vent his anger at the slight, claiming that true fans were aware of the extent of his lyrical contribution, though he fares better than Arabian Prince, a founder member of the group who is all but written out of history by the screenplay.
At times the film sags a little, dutifully running through the money-related fallouts, group implosion and subsequent public disses that occurred in the wake of worldwide fame and notoriety, but for the most part it hold your attention and it’s difficult to think of a music biopic of recent years that has anything near the same level of vibrancy (I haven’t seen Get On Up, which many people claim is similarly energetic). The acting is generally solid, with Hawkins, Mitchell and Jackson, Jr shouldering the weight of the drama well enough, while R. Marcos Taylor steals all of his scenes as the imposing and ruthless Knight. Sadly there are no prominent female roles in what turns, as expected, into a very macho film; as for the rest of the cast, various other prominent musicians of the era – Chuck D, Warren G, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur – are briefly and incongruously shoehorned into the story (there are way too many scenes here in which people are introduced to one another for the first time before being promptly forgotten about), and Paul Giamatti delivers a so-so turn as manager Jerry Heller.
Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff.
Starring: Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Editing: Billy Fox.
Music: Joseph Trapanese, NWA, Various.
Running Time: 146 minutes.