The question with biopics is always what should be included, and what’s reasonable to leave out. Depicting the events of even a few years of a person’s life is incredibly hard to do. The filmmakers have to hone in very carefully on important episodes that will convey the essence of the people and times the film covers, to audiences that might not have context for any of it. By that standard, Straight Outta Compton is a frustrating disappointment. It’s frustrating because the shortcomings of the narrative detract from what is otherwise a powerful piece of filmmaking.
Stylish and gritty, Straight Outta Compton will surely become the definitive visual history of the musical revolution set off by artists Easy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. Director F. Gary Gray, with the help of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, created a film that’s gorgeous to look at, and has been praised by people who experienced the time and place the film covers – such as Selma director Ava DuVernay in a tweet storm about her reaction to the movie. The problem with the film is that the winners, specifically Dr. Dre, got to write their own history.
Dre was among the producers for the film, and his character is written as undeniably heroic. He’s a flawed hero, to be sure, but he’s a hero who stands up to violence and those who perpetrate it. Unfortunately for him, we live in an era when the people stepped on by the winners can still have their say. In this case, there’s the matter of a Gawker article written by Dee Barnes. She describes seeing the film, and her reaction to realizing that the events of January 27th, 1991 were completely left out. On that night, Dre savagely beat Barnes in retaliation for a news item she worked on that Dre felt disrespected him. Barnes’ account of what happened that night, and her feelings about its total disappearance from the timeline of the film, exposes what can go wrong with biopics about still living subjects. Especially when those subjects make their own biopics.
The film mostly portrays N.W.A.’s creativity as being fueled solely by the injustices they felt at the hands of the LAPD. While that was certainly a factor – the song Fuck tha Police serves as an enraged indictment against a law enforcement organization all too willing to brutalize the citizens it’s supposed to protect – it’s not the whole story. Liberals and conservatives alike criticize Gangsta Rap for its misogyny and degradation of women. Songs like Bitches Ain’t Shit portray women as little more than faceless whores. Sure, some women rise above that distinction, but the men get to decide who they are in both their songs and now in their life story. By ignoring this complication to the narrative, which is exacerbated by the Dee Barnes incident, Straight Outta Compton rings hollower than it otherwise would.
The explicit misogyny present in some of N.W.A.’s music is never addressed in Straight Outta Compton. In fact, aside from a mother doling out tough love to Dre, a few girlfriends in the background, and the nameless babes baring their breasts at wild parties, women are virtually nonexistent in the movie. Once you know what happened to Dee Barnes, two events in the movie just don’t add up. They both involve Dre’s association with producer Suge Knight, who the film portrays as a brutal tyrant who uses violence and intimidation to maintain his power. The first scene depicts Knight’s assault of a man who took his parking space and the look on Dre’s face conveys that he’s disturbed by what he sees, realizing he may be in way over his head. The second scene involves Dre finally standing up to the rap producer’s brutal tactics. Knight enjoys himself outside the recording studio while members of his crew terrorize a man with a vicious dog. In one of the movie’s stand-up-and-cheer moments, Dre rescues the man, and kicks Knight and his crew out after making a speech about how he can’t condone this kind of behavior.
Neither scene has the same impact when you know that Dre beat a woman so brutally that she still gets migraines to this day. Straight Outta Compton missed an opportunity to give the fictional Dre a satisfying character arc by including his violent past and having him grow and change over the course of the film. That might not be the truth, though, so the movie took the easy way out, and made Dre a hero without tackling the difficult theme of patriarchal violence towards women. Luckily, the article Dee Barnes wrote forced Dre to respond. His apology doesn’t help the movie, and it reeks of damage control, but it’s a little bit of poetic justice, nonetheless.
There are aspects of the movie worthy of praise. The portrayal of the group’s decision to confront police brutality with their music is powerful. Director Gray adds context by incorporating footage of the Rodney King beating, and the riots that followed. A shot of two gang members walking toward police during the riots, holding red and blue handkerchiefs tied together as a symbol of solidarity, is moving. The theme of how black people are policed in this country comes at a particularly relevant time when you consider the increased attention – largely because of video evidence– of police brutality and killings of black citizens and the Black Lives Matter movement that’s sparked in response.
The performances in Straight Outta Compton are excellent. Jason Mitchell is electric as Easy-E. He walks right up to the line of doing a straight impression, but never crosses it. Rapper O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (aka the real Ice Cube’s son) holds his own playing his father – it helps that he looks just like the old man when he was Junior’s age. Jackson doesn’t quite pull off the scenes when he’s asked to carry them by himself, but this is his first feature role. With some practice, he could easily become a leading man. Corey Hawkins as Dre turns in a performance that eloquently conveys the struggle of a new, young father who knows he was born to go somewhere great, but doesn’t quite know how to get there. What Hawkins could have done with the more serious flaws of the man he portrayed, we’ll never know.
The actors create genuine people, despite the standard biopic clichés that the screenwriters employed in Straight Outta Compton. Besides the issues with ignoring Dr. Dre’s violent past, that’s the biggest problem with the film. The clichés are all there. We have montages of the young musicians hard at work in the studio. We have a meteoric rise, a falling out, then an emotional reconciliation. The writers even chose to let us know a character is getting sick by having him cough a lot, a perplexing choice considering the illness is AIDS. If I didn’t know any better, based on this movie, I’d think AIDS was consumption.
I’m split on Straight Outta Compton. F. Gary Gray keeps the energy high – thanks in part to his wonderful, kinetic camera work – and the two and a half hour run time flies by. He captures the feeling of the mid 1980s and early 90s. The cumulative effect is a movie that’s entertaining while addressing a serious theme relevant today. But no movie exists in a vacuum, and knowing the other serious theme that the filmmakers chose to ignore for the sake of convenience tinges Straight Outta Compton with a real sense of disappointment. It’s a movie worth seeing for its technical skill, as long as you realize you aren’t getting the full story.
Why it got 3 stars:
- The nuts and bolts of Straight Outta Compton (production design, cinematography, direction, editing) are all top notch. Where the film suffers is in the writing. The screenplay employs just about every music biopic cliché imaginable. Also, the troubling things the movie left out create a missed opportunity to address some really important issues.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I feel bad for leaving Paul Giamatti out of the review entirely, because he turns in a solidly Giamattian performance. The guy is great.
- One cringe-worthy scene I left out of the review: Dre is working on his keyboard with a sample, obviously working on the track for Nuthin’ but a G Thang. Snoop walks up and instantly comes up with the first verse of the song. Either Snoop is a true lyrical savant, or this was really lazy writing in order to shoehorn in one of the biggest hits of Dre and Snoop’s career.
- Speaking of Snoop, his part is easily the weakest casting of the whole movie. Not that the actor portraying him (Keith Stanfield) was bad, but come on, it’s Snoop. You want a guy who looks and sounds exactly like Snoop, and this guy just wasn’t it.
- Speaking of casting, the guy playing Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) is terrifying in the role.