Straight Outta Compton is a rare film. Not merely for its biographical treatment of one of hip-hop’s most notorious crews, and not for the star-power that took the reigns of this most precious hip-hop narrative. Rather, for managing to capture the layer-cake of tension that was late-’80s America, embroiled in police brutality, discrimination and the attempts to stifle–or co-opt–a burgeoning black power structure in the entertainment industry that was just becoming prevalent in the wake of hip-hop’s new and unlooked-for success. F. Gary Gray‘s NWA treatment manages to maintain its rugged rawness even through the crystalline lens of 21st century optics, allowing for a vivid, boombox-shattering portrayal of the LA satellite and its immovable stake in the timeline of this culture.
We imagine most, if not all of you were fairly (and quite reasonably) skeptical upon hearing word that a full-fledged retelling of one of hip-hop’s greatest tales would come in the form of the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. We’re also sure that Dr. Dre’s relatively newfound partnership with Apple Music didn’t come off as pure serendipity…but it should be known that the film was not the two-hour-long-advertisement that this writer was under the impression it might be. (That is, of course, until the credits roll and we get hit with the obligatory barrage of motivational speeches and headphone plugs).
All and all, Straight Outta Compton managed to buck the sappy biopic framework and capture what is perhaps one of the most important narratives of rags–to-riches-and-then-back-to-rags (at least for some) that’s ever been, championing Dre, Ice Cube, Yella, Ren & Eazy as the first batch of artists from a still-infantile culture to reach and command its manhood, sparing no manager or label-head in their path.
Here’s where it falls down. In presenting our heroes as, well…heroes, the main characters’ relationships with women are presented in ways that rewrite rap history. This is actually a bit of a surprise, considering that the film opens on a sequence where young Dre is slapped in the face by his mother, as she tells him she will never be satisfied with anything less from him than owning his own company. This is not only a bit too pat in its foreshadowing of our future Super-producer/CEO, it also feels like a set-up (or perhaps backdated alibi) for Dre’s notoriously fraught interactions with the women in his professional life, ranging from protegé Michel’le to journalist Dee Barnes (too much painful history to detail here, but see the discussion around Dre and Cube’s Rolling Stone cover story to get the full discussion of N.W.A.’s place in the birth of the term ‘misogynoir’).
That set-up is never delivered on in any meaningful way, however, the alibi seemingly the only thing left of a trial that was left on the cutting room floor. The band-members’ onscreen interactions with female characters are mostly presented as so mutually respectful that the viewer familiar with their history (and lyrics) can only conclude that they have been sanitized to serve as better role models for a new generation of viewers. Nobody is expecting that NWA should be cast as villains in their own story. The biopic as addiction/abuse morality tale has also been overplayed and Straight Outta Compton is wise to avoid clichés of that particular sort. Yet it also avoids the opportunity to address real pain, real human failings and the real, persistent issue of violence against women in a way that might see the characters (and audience) truly challenged.
It’s always hard to judge a work of art by comparing it to the film (or book or album) you wished you had seen. So it is perhaps better to judge SOC by what it sets out to do, rather than the task it sidesteps. In that sense, at least, it’s hard to complain about a film so steeped in the culture of West Coast rap that it has inspired the long-hibernating beast of Compton that is Dr. Dre to drop his first album in 16 years (whether or not he’s truly a changed man, he is a musical genius). In that sense, we should take the choice of the particular NWA album title which gives the movie its name as indication of the film’s intent as much as its setting. Like an Angeleno City of God, the hood is in some sense the real star here. And so, Straight Outta Compton is indeed a success when taken on its own terms; as a narrative celebration of the City of Compton’s often overlooked–or in some cases, maligned–contribution to the rap canon; a proud flag-flying for the city that’s bled for its spot on hip-hop’s topographical map, even though it was always there.