The most subversive thing about Straight Outta Compton—the N.W.A biopic released last week—is that it treats police officers to the same indignities that most Hollywood movies afford to black characters: They’re just archetypes, and exist within the narrative only so that we can better understand the actions and reactions of our main characters. The cops here are tokens, plot devices, and villains—and are all born of sadism and racism. Some officers go around nowadays saying, “I Am Darren Wilson.” This movie takes them at their word.
They harass and arrest the five rappers at this film’s center numerous times in the opening scenes. The only crime being committed, of course, is the rappers’ color. One of the conceptual jokes buried under the surface of Straight Outta is that, aside from Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), none of the group’s members even lived the criminal lifestyle they rapped about until after they rapped about it. We find Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) doing odd jobs in the West Coast DJing scene, and we meet Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr) in high school. There’s a scene where an “OG” Crenshaw gangster warns an entire bus—he hijacks it after one student throws up Crip signs—to stay off the streets and “gangbang those books” instead. Even that joke turns so that it comes at the LAPD’s expense: Safer to be pulled over by a killer than by a cop.
A needle drop starts off that school-bus-set Scared Straight: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” First it registers as a jokey commentary on Cube’s oversized ambitions. But then its synthy white sound continues, until it becomes a reminder of just how foreign a sound as black as the N.W.A’s must have been during this era of Tipper Gore-approved pop tracks. That’s the whole reason they need manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a noted sleaze who’d eventually break them up, even if the movie never explains it this bluntly: He can get them through the studio’s doors—the ones still emblazoned with “Whites Only.”
When those doors creak open, the group kicks them right in. The film—it’s directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday) and edited by Billy Fox, who both make a couple of fascinating decisions within otherwise perfunctory work—trades on the group’s mythology, treating images like “Eazy-E puts on his shades” with the same reverence a Batman movie affords to the cape and cowl. The whole thing becomes something like a four-letter-word-laden folk ballad: the five black boys who—for themselves, if not for anyone else—slayed the white supremacist dragon guarding the gates of pop culture.
Production on this movie began just days before Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, an event that galvanized the national conversation about race in a way that’s not incomparable to what the Rodney King tape caused in N.W.A’s era. And Gray’s film is infused with a rage—one that was surely fueled by the news reports emerging out of Missouri nightly—against any and all conceptions of white-approved civility. One scene sees a cop taking issue with the name granted to the group’s subgenre of music: “I’m the only ‘gangsta’ out here,” he maintains. But then you see the sequence where the five rappers pause a group orgy to chase away an involved groupie’s jilted boyfriend with assault rifles at their hips, and—for better or worse—you want to respond to that cop yourself: No, sir, you are not. This worldview isn’t “hands up, don’t shoot.” It’s more like “guns out—fuck you.”
And that cinematic fury is purely—even ecstatically—amoral. Sing along! As Eazy-E drops classic verses like “So what about the bitch who got shot / fuck her!” Laugh! As the group’s innumerable romps with anonymous women lead to many a homophobic in-joke among bros. And applaud! As Suge Knight and his army of bouncers threaten violence against anyone who obscures the interests of Death Row Records. Every instance of unethical behavior, to this point, is trumped by the fact that white oppression was trounced on the way there. These are gangsta rappers—Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow are among the credited producers—offering a political justification for the unrestrained parameters of gangsta rap: When society denies your decency, why not reap the benefits of filthiness?
If we left the movie there, this’d be a fresh twist on an old standard: a rap-era jukebox musical. But this isn’t that—it’s a biopic. And that’s a genre that comes with cliches attached, no assembly required. Like the goofy way each artist spits their verses fully formed during the very first take. Or the way that luminaries like Snoop Dogg and Tupac show up for negligible scenes, if only so the audience can shout, “Hey, Snoop!” Or—especially—the way that Eazy-E’s terminal illness (AIDS) is handled. His sickness is displayed in the same sanitized way that it was for Greta Garbo in old Hollywood movies: He just starts placing a cough in between every three lines of dialogue. These touches aren’t realistic or political—they’re just for the sake of safeguarding the iconography. They’re reputation maintenance.
Speaking of vanity, that ties into the biggest biopic cliche that Gray and his crew indulge in: the “artistic decline and moral decline occurring simultaneously” sequence. Suge Knight, rather hilariously, becomes an externalized devil-on-the-shoulder: As the diss tracks get meaner and the parties achieve peak hedonism, his suit grows increasingly red. By the end of the movie, he seems to be wearing a puddle of blood.
And so when Dre abandons him in favor of a pseudo-N.W.A-reunion, it’s not just office politics—it’s a spiritual redemption. Is it a crowd-pleasing moment? Most definitely. But as you sit there, watching a film produced by Dre, wherein all his worst transgressions have been omitted—a movie where the end credits are literally overshadowed by clips of Eminem talking about how great Dre is and on-screen text noting just how rich he got by selling his Beats brand to Apple—you can’t help but feel funny about the whole damn thing. Maybe we shouldn’t be so pleased.
That’s a particularly American fable: the boys who got kept out of the corporate game until they succeeded enough to sit behind the locked doors themselves. Resting alongside the ad for Dre’s overpriced headphones are clips of Cube’s performances in many mediocre—but very high-grossing!—Hollywood comedies. That’s where these bastions of realness ended up. And then we all clap and go home happy? It’s a contradiction that the movie can’t resolve—the kind caused by the intersection of ego, reputation, and history. That’s why the movie wants to revel in amoral fun while also redeeming everyone from its sins. That’s why the whole group gets celebrated both as street kids and as executive geniuses. That’s why major record labels are painted as both false idols and titans to aspire to. That’s why it’s all a mixed message, one old and radical, one new and corporate-friendly—fuck tha police, yes, but buy some Beats headphones, too.
STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. NOW PLAYING. RATED R.