‘Straight Outta Compton’: Rewriting history, but not very well

When it comes to truth telling, that’s where this film really goes off the rails, creating a mythic reality that never actually existed.

PR still from "Straight Outta Compton." (Courtesy: Universal Pictures)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2015 – When it comes to the film “Straight Outta Compton,” you have to ask: How exactly does someone go about rewriting history?

The original story of the pioneering hip-hop group N.W.A. played out in real time, most prominently between the years 1989 and 1991. Its influence is arguably still happening, with Dr. Dre releasing a new album and Ice Cube still seen as a bankable movie star.

The group ultimately broke up. But all its core members still hold sway in some fashion or another today. As they still acknowledge a connection to their roots, it’s hard to actually say N.W.A. is truly gone.

With that kind of resonance, it’s easy to see why the recently released biopic “Straight Outta Compton” was a film that somehow needed to be made. Yet most of the details were filmed earlier when they actually took place. Those that weren’t were already documented.

In short, the N.W.A. saga is a story that’s already played itself out for anyone willing to Google it.

All the information is there for anyone to see. But much of it doesn’t exist in a coherent, polished package. Taken as a genre, biopics allow their creators to streamline the narrative of a certain time, person or ensemble, permitting a story’s essence to be digestible by mass audiences.

The generally central narration of a biopic gives the subject a single voice where before one didn’t exist. This is especially interesting in musical biopics. The musical voice of an individual or group is readily available via recordings.

Thus, a biopic in theory has to work doubly hard to make the music relevant to the narrative content of the film. Deploying the former to inform the latter can make the subject matter seem especially poignant. Often, though, this process can ring hollow and false, especially when the subjects are given a say over the final product.

This is where “Straight Outta Compton” goes off the rails.

“Straight Outta Compton” is the story of N.W.A.’s rise and fall, along with the career trajectory of the group’s primary movers and shakers as well as the experience of their entourage. The film not only narrates this history, but also attempts to grasp the times that formed them and the culture they helped create, as well as their growing place within the realm of pop-culture.

Or at least it encompasses parts of it. But much of this movie ends up dealing with half-truths and innuendo, obscuring the line of sight.

The movie begins as Eric Wright – better known as Eazy E and played here by Jason Mitchell – is making a drug deal at a house in Compton in 1986. The exchange is clearly going south for E, who barely escapes the consequences, hopping from roof to roof as everyone else involved is presumably busted.

This scene sets the stage for the rest of the movie. For better or worse, it’s also the most brilliant sequence in this two-hour plus film, foreshadowing the story that’s yet to unfold. Dark and murky, the limited lighting and highlights viscerally portray how desperate LA’s down-and-outers were in that era.

From the beginnings of the drug deal, through the aggressive invasion of the house via the LAPD and their battering ram, director F. Gary Gray immediately links the police brutality meme with the similar situation that seems to have resurfaced in 2015. While making the action seem relevant, though, this approach succeeds in simultaneously working for and against the film.

Gray makes numerous successful attempts to establish the film’s relevance with today’s headlines, such as showing members of N.W.A. being harassed by authorities, citing the police beating of Rodney King and its aftermath. The more immediate instances of police harassment – especially everything involving Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) – resonates strongly. These key scenes resonate to the very core of the film.

This arc comes to a head with Ice Cube’s freshly penned “F*** Tha Police,” which the film connects to a humbling encounter with the LAPD outside of the group’s recording studio.

The idea is further pursued in the film’s second major set piece, their infamous Detroit show, which eventually ends in mass panic. The Detroit police tell the N.W.A. not to perform “F*** Tha Police” or they’ll face retribution. In another brilliant Ice Cube moment portrayed by O’Shea Jackson, his character glances back at Dre, opining “Dre…I got something to say” before launching into the first verse of the banned song.

The cadence of this scene, as constructed by Gray, is absolutely spectacular in the way it demonstrates Ice Cube’s defiance of authority, providing ample reason that N.W.A. was considered dangerous even by the normally sympathetic mainstream media at the time. This segment is the true peak of the film, brilliantly illustrating the cracks around the edges of America’s fraying social contract.

It’s at this moment that “Straight Outta Compton” paints N.W.A.’s members as revolutionary figures. Their controversial song lies at the center of a call to arms. It’s made readily apparent when Gray juxtaposes the band’s movements with LA riots that occurred after the Rodney King beating verdict. Drawing that parallel makes N.W.A. – and, by association, the gangsta rap they helped commercialize – into authentic counterculture figures, who force their audience and America at large to take notice of larger concerns.

N.W.A. were important and their music was influential and potent. But in many ways, they were not revolutionary figures. They were reactionary ones. “F*** Tha Police” isn’t really a call to arms. It constitutes a significant portion of their reality. It’s the reality of a justifiably angry young man. But it’s not asking anything of its listeners. The contradictions between the reality of the song and what’s portrayed in the film gradually cause the movie to fall apart because it doesn’t sustain much of its narrative drive with verifiable facts.

At the center of the narrative dissolution is Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). The early segments of the film focus on the central viewpoint of Eazy E, who perhaps best reflects the group’s reality at the time, something that’s important for establishing the film’s verisimilitude. Eventually, the first half of the film is driven almost entirely by Ice Cube’s narrative arc. He was the first breakout star of the group, and his point of view is crucial to showing how the group rose to prominence and ultimately fell apart under the dealings of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).

That leaves the second half of the film to be occupied by Dr. Dre. Dre became a driving force of west coast rap after N.W.A.’s collapse with his seminal album “The Chronic,” and his strong influence gained by producing some of the best-known songs and albums at the heart of the genre. If someone like Gray is telling the history of West Coast rap – which is essentially what “Straight Outta Compton” is doing – Dre has to be at the core of the film’s second act.

But there’s a problem here. Dre is a ghost of a character throughout the film. As the film progresses, he is the one trying to bring the dissenting opinions of the group back into their music. He only wants to create and refuses to get involved in everything else. This is one major part of the film that doesn’t line up with the reality of the real Dr. Dre, and the portrayal of his character becomes hollow as a result.

Getting biopics made when the subject or subjects are still living is frequently not an easy matter. It takes a number of people to agree on specific rights, as well as the way characters are depicted. Likewise, living or dead, their estates must also be okay with the details of the film.

The biggest obstacles of getting “Straight Outta Compton” made was to have the real life Ice Cube and Dr. Dre on board with the film. So it was no surprise that the two giants ended up as producers of the film. It’s also part of the reason why they occupy such prominent roles in the film, while the likes of MC Ren and DJ Yella are background characters without significant narrative arcs.

The influence of Ice Cube and Dre also means that some uglier aspects of N.W.A. and its members’ histories were glossed over or neglected entirely. Much of this is due to Dr. Dre, and the movie suffers because of it.

Before the film was released and then immediately after, there was considerable discussion, and fresh accusations were made regarding the physical abuse a number of women allegedly suffered at the hands of Dr. Dre. Critics questioned why such matters were excluded from “Straight Outta Compton,” particularly an incident involving music journalist Dee Barnes.

Ultimately, some apologies were made. But ultimately Gray, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube decided none of this was relevant to the story they wanted to tell. It was, perhaps, a likely but unfortunate outcome, given Dre’s and Ice Cube’s key roles in the production of this film. In the end, as the cliché goes, it’s always the victors who write the histories.

It’s primarily for this reason, one suspects, that Dre often appears to be a bystander in a film that essentially focuses on his story. Things happen around him in this movie, but rarely to him.

For example, when Suge Knight uses illicit means (beating the living daylights out of E to get various rappers, including Dre, out of their contracts), Dre is absolutely nowhere to be found. It’s not necessary to implicate Dre as the mastermind behind this film’s most violent moments. But such things in real life are hard to ignore. In place of reality, however, the audience is treated superfluous cameos by such hip hop luminaries as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, which don’t add much to the film other than to say that they were there too.

It’s understandable from a conceptual point why the assault on Dee Barnes or any abused woman in the real life story arc isn’t included. The misogynistic aspects of N.W.A.’s music – which are considerable – are mostly kept out of the film. Realistically, though, Dre’s character is kept so squeaky clean in the film that he doesn’t feel like a real character, much less the actual man Hawkins is supposed to be portraying. In a scene where he’s pulled over by the cops, screaming while trying to rush away from the life he has created, it signifies absolutely nothing.

That’s ultimately the fatal flaw in “Straight Outta Compton.” This supposed biopic only tells a partial history of N.W.A. and West Coast rap and not the Full Monty. Given what was left on the cutting room floor or not filmed at all, this movie has the look and feel of pure fiction rather than being a film that shows true events.

“Straight Outta Compton” mythologizes N.W.A. But it doesn’t offer a portrait of the actual N.W.A. that once existed. Instead, it’s a case study of how music can incite a populace and end up standing for something much greater than just art.

Unfortunately neither N.W.A. nor its individual members ever stood for the myths that are portrayed in this intriguing but highly flawed film.

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