There’s a few major obstacles to overcome when making a film like Straight Outta Compton. First of all, the easily-offended of 2015 would never approve of a truly authentic N.W.A. mainstream biopic. And many won’t have the patience to endure a highlight reel of information that can be easily found on YouTube/Wikipedia. Yet the film must still appeal to those unaware of N.W.A.’s origins. In other words, Straight Outta Compton had to explain who Dr. Dre and Ice Cube used to be without thoroughly outraging their modern fanbase, and to present the humanity of Eazy-E; a musician most known for his flaws, but not necessarily for who he actually was as a human being.
So, it seems fitting that Straight Outta Compton opens with Eazy-E. A drug deal goes wrong, tanks fill the streets and the main title drops. Urban warfare. Just as the music of N.W.A. conveyed the realities of late 80s Compton, the opening sequence of the film sets the tone for a narrative of brutality versus creative expression. In an early scene, a young Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson. Jr.) experiences a bus-jacking, in which gang members confront a few smack-talking kids. However, Cube shakes off the “motivational speech” as a learning experience and hits the studio with Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). While this particular moment may seem like exposition, the raw intensity reminded me of Ernest Dickerson’s 1992 film Juice. Back then, I was enthralled by the musical skills of Omar Epps’ Q, and I was equally captivated by Dre’s introductory DJ scene in Straight Outta Compton. Likewise, Cube’s subsequent freestyle performance at a nightclub contains a raw energy that captures the essence of N.W.A.’s music: in your face and uncompromising.
Enter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the manager of N.W.A. This is where time becomes a tricky thing, and in my opinion, the most honest and powerful moments of Straight Outta Compton come pre-infamy, pre-breakup, as N.W.A. struggles to understand the music industry as a whole and how the world views them. But that story alone wouldn’t have fully explained the significance of N.W.A. to mainstream audiences. As a result, a collection of familiar faces are introduced during scenes that don’t necessarily allow anyone to flourish. For example, the appearance of Snoop Dogg had audience members applauding at my screening, but as much as I appreciate Keith Stanfield’s talent, the characterization seems more like a guy doing an impression at a party. It’s these type of passing moments that distract from the narrative. As both Jerry Heller and Suge Knight become the “baddies” of Straight Outta Compton, and Eazy-E dissents from the group, the film becomes more of a pop culture experience rather than a hard-hitting exploration of the individual personas.
The star of Straight Outta Compton is clearly Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who owns every scene with natural charisma and displays enormous potential by handling his business alongside a talent like Paul Giamatti. And while F. Gary Gray’s direction may seem like endless exposition to some, a second viewing may allow one to focus more on the subtle reveals rather than the obvious ones. As the music industry continues to evolve and both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube remain icons of the entertainment industry, Straight Outta Compton serves as a reminder of underground mentality and how a simple idea can change one’s life forever.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder of Vague Visages. He lived in Hollywood, California from 2006 to 2012 and has bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.