Straight Outta Compton was directed by F. Gary Gray, probably best known for his work on the film Friday. It is a dramatic biopic based on the formation and rise to fame of NWA, the controversial rap group known for it’s single “Fuck The Police.” Taken at face value, this is an enjoyable but somewhat campy look at hip hop history. When examined a little closer, especially when examining the role that women play in the film, it is a little more troubling and difficult to enjoy. The truth is that the real life version of the film’s protagonist, Dr. Dre, has a history of physical violence against women, and and choosing to ignore that this fact hurt’s the film’s credibility. However, when viewed with the understanding that this is a dramatization of a true story and not the true story itself, the film is rather enjoyable.
Everything about the way in which this film was shot and edited comes across like a competently Hollywood made film. Gray makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel, and he does not need to either. What stands out, however, is the fact that much of the film was shot in gang-controlled areas of Compton. This is something that the casual viewer may not notice, but it does lend credibility to the film. It also helps that these scenes are being shot in an area that is usually never captured on film at all. The film makers had to actually hire a Blood affiliate in order to even secure the shooting locations (leading to a bizarre side story endingwith the real Suge Knight being charged with manslaughter).
Regardless of this, Gray’s visual work on this film is more than adequate from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Put simply, the film is shot well. When looking at the visual choices that Gray made in the context of the story telling, things get somewhat problematic. Talented film makers are visual story tellers who spare the audience from minute after minute of tedious exposition by simply showing the right thing at the right time. An example of this being done successfully is early in the film when Ice Cube is waiting on the school bus. With his notebook in front of him, he looks out his window at the white teenagers in the parking lot. He sees wealthy and privileged young people with their own cars. He sees them casually interacting with a police officer. He then turns his attention back to his bus filled with black teenagers who are waiting to be driven back into the slums. The scene itself takes roughly a minute of screen time, but it tells a powerful story. Without using voice-over narration or literally spelling out the message for the audience, the film tells us the story of an intelligent and creative young man facing institutional racism, injustice, poverty, and inequality. This is an effective use of visual story telling that is just subtle enough to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and become lost in the film, but just poignant enough for us to get the message.
While most of Gray’s visual story telling was successful in advancing the story, it was not always so subtle. An example of this comes early, when a young Dr. Dre is laying down on a bed of funk and jazz LPs while listening to Roy Ayers “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” The young and aspiring DJ seems almost on another planet while listening to the track, only to come hurtling back down to Earth when his mother rips his headphone cord out. While the visual story telling does tell the audience about Dre’s musical influences, as well as his youthful enthusiasm, it does seem a little ridiculous that his LPs were so neatly laid out for us to see. It is this kind of silliness that takes us out of the moment and reminds us that we are watching a movie. This is still better than needless exposition, but only by default.
From a timing and execution standpoint, the film was a little disjointed. Each of the film’s three acts had a feel all to itself, and the entire film did not feel like one cohesive work. The film began as a playfully campy “rags to riches” story told over a backdrop of racism, inequality, and police brutality. The second act gave way to a series of self-congratulatory vignettes in which the film makers manufactured “historical moments.” By the end of the film, the tone seemed to deteriorate into that of a made-for-TV melodrama. Given all of this, it is surprising to me that I enjoyed Straight Outta Compton as much as I did. Despite it’s many flaws, this was an enjoyable movie from start to finish. This is due largely to the tremendous performances by the film’s main cast.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this film was in the performances of O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), and Jason Mitchell (Eazy E). This group of previously unknown actors captured their roles perfectly, and thus elevated a halfway decent film into a tremendously enjoyable one. All credit is due not only to these young men, but to Gray and his team of casting directors who spent two years putting the cast together. Gray put them through an 8-week “boot camp”, in which they recorded NWA’s debut album, as well as undergoing the physical transformations necessary to pull off the roles. Hawkins even worked with a DJ coach in order to convincingly perform as World Class Wrecking Crew era Dre (WCWC itself was excluded from the film). Arguably the most impressive performance came from Mitchell, who was employed as a line cook in New Orleans prior to being cast in this role. Mitchell’s Eazy E was both interesting and endearing, and even when his character was doing something unlikable, one could not help but stay invested in Eazy. His performance was both authentic and emotionally charged. All three of the actors deserve credit for their on-screen chemistry. One of the most enjoyable parts of the film was watching the young group members joke around and poke fun at each other. Truthfully, this felt like the most authentic part of the entire film.
Musically, the film is outstanding, which is no surprise given the fact that Dr. Dre was involved. The actual track list for the film reads like a well-curated summer playlist, complete with old school hip hop, funk, modern hip hop (from Dre’s new album), and even some 80s pop. The soundtrack serves to not only set each scene in it’s correct time period (Run DMC for the early scenes, Wu Tang Clan for the later ones), but it provides us with insight into the artists that inspired Dre and NWA. There is a heavy use of George Clinton and his various projects (both Parliament and Funkadelic), which is to be expected. It also features some lesser known but equally important artists like Hashim, who a young Dr. Dre scratches along to early in the film, and funk legends Zapp & Roger. Fans of Dre’s music would do well to study the music included in this film. While Straight Outta Compton is a movie with some serious flaws, the music itself in not one of them.
As far as accuracy goes, this film is clearly a Hollywood dramatization, and it makes no claims to being anything else. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it probably makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience. In one scene, the police harass the group members outside of a recording studio, forcing them to lay face down on the pavement (one officer is African American, perhaps a subtle nod to the famous line “they’ll slam you down to the street top/black police showing out for the white cop”). Immediately after, Ice Cube bursts into the studio with the lyrics for “Fuck The Police.” This is presented in a very cinematic way: an inciting incident that brings about a big change in the story. It is more likely that the song came together over a long creative process, but the film presents it in a way that makes for better cinema. For the film it works. The film has already established a pattern of police harassment, so the dramatization of one incident inspiring a song does not take away credibility from the film.
However, not all of these “historical moments” are well-executed. Take, for instance, the scene in which Dre is fumbling around on a keyboard and discovering the “Nothin But a G Thing” riff just seconds before Snoop just happened to walk over and improvise the beginning of the now iconic song. Not only does it seem highly unlikely that this iconic song came together so smoothly and at such a dramatically important moment, but it just comes across as self-congratulatory and goofy. The same can be said for the scene in which Ice Cube just happens to be writing the screenplay for Friday, saying the iconic “knocked the fuck out” line to himself for no particular reason. By the time Dre walks into the studio to offer a young Tupac a song that just happens to be “California Love”, one can not help but roll their eyes. Yeah, we get it. We know that you guys were important, you do not need to jam all of these little moments into a movie that is already two and a half hours long. While cringe worthy, these moments still did not take away from what was an enjoyable film.
Not only was it clear that this was a Hollywood dramatization, but it was clear that history was written by the winners. In this case, the winners are Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, who were both heavily involved in the making of this film. Neither man could resist the urge to lionize themselves, painting themselves with broad strokes into heroic figures (or reducing MC Ren and Yella one-dimensional side characters). Ice Cube was the fearless renegade, and Dr. Dre was the great visionary surrounded by would-be corruptors. It only seems fitting that a Hollywood regular (Cube) and a damn-near billionaire (Dre) get to make themselves the heroes of their own film, selectively disregarding anything that might make them look less than heroic. It has to be because of pride that they (Dre, Cube, Gray, and everyone else) decided to exclude hip hop’s most overlooked and swept under the rug story. It is doing everyone a disservice to make a film about the history of NWA and to leave out Dee Barnes.
I can not emphasize enough how imperative it is that everyone who saw this film have an opportunity to read Barnes recent article on Gawker.
The short version of the story is that Barnes was a female journalist who hosted a popular hip hop show called Pump It Up! in the early 1990s. They aired a segment that ended with Ice Cube, who was a solo act at this point, insulting the other group members. Barnes, who was the host and did not have a ton of creative input on the show, warned the producers that including the Ice Cube segment may insight the members of NWA, and argued that things would end badly. Barnes’ pleas fell on deaf ears, and the segment was aired as planned. Angered by the segment, Dr. Dre blamed Barnes, and he physically assaulted her in 1991 (she describes this in greater detail in the article).
The actions of the real life Dr. Dre were violent and inexcusable. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Barnes also describers how Dre punched label mate Tairrie B twice at a Grammy Party, and how Dre’s one-time girlfriend Michel’le said that “I was just a quiet girlfriend who got beat on and told to sit down and shut up.” These actions, none of which Dre has ever denied, are far more despicable than anything actually portrayed in the film. They are, by far, worse than anything Jerry Heller (depicted as the film’s main villain) did. Yet none of this actually made the film, except for a quick reference to assault charges. The real-life actions of Dre did not fit the heroic version of the film, so they were excluded. When asked why Dee Barnes was left out, Gray said that he felt the incident was a “side story.” This highlights a bigger problem with the film, which is the almost blatant disrespect for women.
It is perhaps fitting that the group known for “A Bitch Iz A Bitch” should spawn a film with such little regard for the women involved in the story. The film seems more content to use scantily clad women as set dressings than it does to tell any kind of true story. Apart from Dre’s mother (on screen for all of five minutes) and Eazy E’s widow (who played a small part despite being involved in the making of the actual film), all of the women shown on screen are groupies. Not only is this bad form, it is dishonest. The truth is that there would be no NWA if there were no JJ Fad, the girl group that legitimized Ruthless records and allowed Straight Outta Compton to be recorded. JJ Fad were left out of the film entirely, leaving the viewer to believe that NWA were just discovered rather than the truth, which is that they walked a road paved by a group of women.
(Barnes article also mentions a number of other female contributors who were also important to the success of the male artists portrayed in the film. Read it!) The film also makes no reference to Pat Charbonnet, Cube’s publicist who was instrumental to him leaving the group and getting him a solo record deal. The way in which the film treats women seems consistent with the attitude that the group members, and the film’s director have shown for over the last few decades. Is it any wonder why Cube made certain that the scene in which he trashes the Priority Records office, which was nearly cut, stayed in the film? Yet Cube did not feel it was as important to present the truth about Dee Barnes. This is the part of the film that I found most troublesome, reconciling my respect and admiration for NWA with the fact that these guys have given me no reason to believe they are anything but tireless egomaniacs who think that their legacies are more important than the dignity and well being of the women who made their careers possible.
It is a shame that Gray and company handled the film’s women so poorly, because it might have made for a more interesting story if the film’s heroes had to reconcile the things they were saying on their records with the women they were actually surrounded with. However, all things considered this was an enjoyable film. Taken with a grain of salt, it’s a well-acted look at one of hip hop’s most influential groups. The music is great, the social commentary is relevant (police brutality is alive and well), and made for enjoyable, one-time viewing.