D: F. Gary Gray. DP: Matthew Libatique. W: Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff. Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr./Corey Hawkins/Jason Mitchell/Neil Brown Jr./Aldis Hodge/R. Marcus Taylor/Paul Giamatti/Tate Ellington.
Already the highest grossing R rated opening for the month of August in the US, Straight Outta Compton has put the biopic back on the map in a big way. A collective process with the help of former N.W.A. members, the film follows a group of friends from Compton as they rap their way to the top, and spawn careers outside of their street stories.
Straight Outta Compton joins a long lineage of musical biopic projects that were developed with the involvement of their original subjects. This theoretically brings a level of authenticity and oftentimes transparency to a film, but can also allow certain events or people to be omitted or glossed over. Routinely when you look through interviews, biopic subjects want the ‘truth’ of their story to come through – something to be clarified, and have certain emphasis in mind. The disgruntled biopic subject oftentimes results when life rights are disputed or music catalogs not released, a legal battle at the heart of this entire genre. Therefore, in this case, although Dr. Dre and Ice Cube produced this film, there can never be a complete truth as the film is still edited and constructed. In other words, a biopic is never accurate about everything as it is by it very nature, fictionalized.
Director F. Gary Gray, who comes from a music video background as well as directing Ice Cube in Friday in 1995, is able to keep the pace going with an impressive two hours and twenty-seven minutes running time. What helps dilute the film’s conventionality is its triple focus. Rather than follow one subject, it intertwines the journeys of three through their friendship, success, and fights. Eazy-E is played by New Orleans newcomer Jason Mitchell whose slinky dope dealer turned rapper is a memorable first turn. Julliard graduate, Corey Hawkins, steps into Dr. Dre’s DJ spinner shoes with a smooth focus that roots Dre in creative ambition. Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., had the fascinating opportunity to play his father. Jackson is a great look-a-like, but it is his aggressive vulnerability that is impressive. Ultimately, the chemistry between the three, and with the other two members of N.W.A., are why the film works as well as it does. Their friendship and fights are biopic gold, but could feel hackneyed without a deft hand.
N.W.A.’s illustration of Compton, their concerts in 1989, the creation of the Parental Guidance stickers for their album, and the racism and riots they endured are just a few of the many beats in Straight Outta Compton. At the core of the film is a debate on lyrical authenticity. Like country music, the rap genre continuously attests that artists write and rap what they experience – bringing the streets to the studio. This is discussed narratively, but structurally the music is used to echo the story. This also helps to keep the pace up as the creative process never seems to stop as Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records continues and Dr. Dre’s record company introduces new artists like Snoop Dogg and Tupac to the scene. Embedded in their feuding is also a debate about space, Compton, and the money that allows you to live in a house in the hills. Compton as a setting is as important here like it was in 1992’s Boyz in the Hood, directed by John Singleton, starring Ice Cube himself.
As I’ve said, despite the group members’ involvement so much could not be addressed in the film. Unfortunately, the group’s treatment of women is never really called out except in one or two warnings by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). The misogyny in their lifestyles was ever present in their music; their wives and children all take literal backseats here. Yet the film does not glamorize the group’s ascension, rather it shows the immense price they paid to get out of their hood. The political atmosphere surrounding N.W.A.s first album rings sadly reminiscent of current climates in the U.S. right now. How much has really changed in twenty five years? Cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, who routinely works with Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), captures an amazing show while depicting the LA Riots. A blue bandanna and red bandanna are tied up and held together, representing solidarity between the Crypts and Bloods, the famous feuding LA gangs. For me, whose researched heavily into musical biopics, Straight Outta Compton‘s ultimate triumph is that it connects music to its moments and gives an audience as much context as clarity on a subject’s passion and success.