When it first came out back in the summer of 1988, N.W.A’s debut album Straight Outta Compton sounded like a harrowing distress call from the streets of South Central Los Angeles. It was urgent, angry, and alive in a way that West Coast hip-hop hadn’t yet dared to be. In the album’s rat-a-tat opening lines, Ice Cube delivers a blistering salvo of pent-up frustration from the “gang called Niggaz With Attitude.” The rapper’s choice of words wasn’t arbitrary. NWA was a gang. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but they were a tight-knit brotherhood forged through their collective experiences with poverty, prejudice, and police harassment. Even when you left, you were never really out.
What would happen to N.W.A over the next decade (the bitter infighting, solo careers, rivalries, riches, and the death of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright from AIDS in 1995) is enough to fuel a dozen Behind the Music episodes. And, at times, F. Gary Gray’s fast, furious, and funny N.W.A biopic feels exactly like that, fast-forwarding through the group’s highlights and lowlights without getting too deep beneath the surface. But what a surface it is. There are moments in Straight Outta Compton when the music is so thrilling and fierce, it’s enough to give you goose bumps — like a scene near the mid-way point of the film when O’Shea Jackson Jr. (playing his real-life father Ice Cube) scowls and spits the retaliation rap “No Vaseline” after being called out as a Benedict Arnold for leaving N.W.A. Gray’s film has just enough moments like that one that, if you’re like me, you’ll forgive its more melodramatic clichés and just surrender to its raw, brass-knuckle force.
Straight Outta Compton opens in 1986. For those too young to recall that era, Gray uses archival footage and news reports to sketch out that this is the height of the crack epidemic and L.A.’s Bloods-and-Crips turf wars. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (played by Jason Mitchell), the “hardest” of the teens who will become N.W.A, is swept up in that lethal lifestyle. When we first meet him, he narrowly escapes being killed in a guns-drawn dispute at a dope house that’s raided by the LAPD – maybe the only time in his short, tragic life that a brush with the cops will bounce in his favor. Meanwhile, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is hustling to get his DJ career off of the ground while his pal Ice Cube is busy observing the brutal world around him, a rapper/reporter penning rhymes in a journal. Soon, along with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), they will come together in the studio and channel their surroundings into a Molotov cocktail captured on vinyl.
The first – and best — third of the film is essentially N.W.A’s origin story: their aspirations, assembly, and earliest recordings that lead them to put their faith in a seemingly paternal manager (Paul Giamatti, with a shock of grey hair and a series of velour track suits) who ultimately chisels everyone but Eazy-E out of their share of money and credit (eventually, he’ll cheat him too). As NWA goes on tour to promote Straight Outta Compton playing to packed houses, partying with a parade of naked groupies, and becoming the outlaw provocateurs of Gangsta Rap, Gray’s film gathers force, hinting at the beefs and betrayals to come. First, there’s the looming, hulking presence of Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), an ex-con ex-bodyguard who whispers arsenic into Dre’s ear. Then, there’s Eazy-E’s power-hungry paranoia and health problems, which Gray telegraphs with jackhammer-subtle coughing fits — the kind of narrative laziness that ultimately prevents Compton from being great.
Written by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, Compton is the kind of movie that can sweep you up in its thrall one moment and then leave you scratching your head the next. It’s hugely entertaining and occasionally maddening. In a scene that manages to be one of the film’s most powerful and phoniest, the group is shown hanging out in front of the studio taking a break from recording their first album when a squad car pulls up and proceeds to humiliate and harass them because they look like gangbangers. The sequence has an eerie and revolting timeliness as specific to 2015 as it is to 1988. But before it’s allowed to sink in and resonate, Gray cuts to Ice Cube behind the mic rapping his response to the incident, “F— Tha Police.” Surely, the cause-and-effect couldn’t have happened that quickly. It’s a cheat. But Gray has a lot of story to pack into two hours and change and the clock is ticking …
When Cube eventually leaves the group feeling shortchanged and disrespected, the actors (who are uniformly excellent) make you feel the pain of the divorce. They give you the sense of how fast their world is moving and how hard it is to get off the ride. Soon, Dre jumps too, fatefully hitching his wagon for a time with Knight, who’s painted as a sort of Thug-life Caligula with his penchant for terrorizing rivals with his Dobermans when he’s not using the blunt, business end of the gun stuffed in his sizable waistband. For him, violence isn’t just something in N.W.A’s lyrics, it’s a way of life. Not for nothing did he name his and Dre’s company “Death Row.”
In its final stretch, Compton skitters from one momentous milestone in the history of hip-hop to the next: Here’s Dre writing The Chronic with his laid-back new protege Snoop Dogg; here’s Cube writing the script for Friday; here’s Eazy-E smoking too much weed while his crooked manager scams him; here they all are watching the riots after the Rodney King verdict. Gray does his best to keep the momentum going while jumping back and forth between storylines, but with so much ground to cover, he lets certain threads slip from his grasp. At one point, Dre leads the police on a high-speed car chase, gets arrested, and it’s never mentioned again. It’s a tribute to how compelling N.W.A’s story is that you almost don’t care about narrative lapses like that. Straight Outta Compton is a hugely entertaining film that works best if you don’t look at it too closely and just listen.