If there’s one question worth asking after the credits roll on F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, it’s “Why didn’t he make a series instead of a film?” Next year, Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger will roll out Vinyl, a ten-episode series on HBO that focuses on the developing aural confluence of hip hop, disco and punk rock in 1970s New York. On paper, Gray’s movie wants to be exactly that for legendary rap group N.W.A., but he only has 130 minutes to cover almost a decade’s worth of happenings. Disadvantage: Gray.
The imbalance hardly matters now: We’ve been given Straight Outta Compton as cinema, and as cinema, it mostly succeeds. Originally, the idea of Hollywood turning the story of N.W.A.’s culture-shifting influence into a summertime biopic raised red flags. How can an industry with such a massive race gap tell N.W.A.’s history with the integrity and urgency it demands in 2015? How can a business that’s largely curated by whites do proper justice to a seminal rap album designed around critique of systemic injustice against black Americans? The tale of how N.W.A. became N.W.A. isn’t just about people making music—it’s about the music itself, and what that music meant to its authors as well as audiences around the country. Above all else, the message matters, even 27 years later.
In Straight Outta Compton, that message remains surprisingly intact, but it’s smushed hagiography and an exhaustive collection of filler. The film has as many heroes and villains as it does human beings, with Ice Cube (portrayed by his son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) fulfilling the former parts, and Suge Knight (a wild-eyed R. Marcus Taylor) and Jerry Heller (an out-of-his-depth Paul Giamatti) the latter. In the middle, there’s Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), who spends the film fighting for his soul, and in the margins, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) are given little and less to do, observing players in their own biography. (And if you’re waiting for mention of female cast members, forget it. The women here are either mothers, wives or playthings.) So Straight Outta Compton isn’t quite as brutally honest and realistic as it ought to be, in other words, but Gray’s blunt presentation of the film’s most prominent themes—especially his examination of how white-run enterprises tend to use black talent for personal gain—is impressive, even if the structure holding it up isn’t.
At its worst, the film is agonizingly biopic-ish. At its best, it’s a rise-and-fall movie where the first half is infinitely more compelling than the second. Straight Outta Compton follows the trajectory of N.W.A.’s individual members as they cut one of the all-time greatest records in rap canon before crumbling over contract law squabbles and hurt feelings. Gray, who directed Cube back in 1995’s Friday (which earns more than a few in-joke references here), makes large stretches of the behind-the-music narrative pop before, almost inevitably, the script sputters out. Such is the nature of the biopic: They jam too much “stuff” into too small an artistic space, and the results legitimately, overtly feel compressed.
But when Straight Outta Compton the movie revolves around the conception and birth of Straight Outta Compton the album, it benefits enormously from the reduction in scope. Any time Gray’s principals get together in the same room, they engage with us effortlessly, sharing a relaxed, familiar chemistry with each other. All of them embody their respective roles so well they transcend playing parts and fully slip into their characters’ skins. (Jackson admittedly has it easy, but you would hire your son to play you in a movie about you, too.) As long as the film is about them, it works. It even verges on being great. One scene in particular, in which a handful of police officers harass the group on the sidewalk outside their studio, pushes the film into essential territory—it’s a dangerous, fraught moment of cross-and-interracial tension. The sequence segues into the development of that most iconic of N.W.A. joints, “Fuck tha Police,” and we instantly remember that we’re watching a Hollywood biopic, where incident and coincidence often go hand in hand, reality be damned. The record scratches. The illusion shatters.
Once the screenplay moves past the aftermath of the song’s release, the scale expands and Straight Outta Compton can’t carry the weight of such a shift in focus. Gray’s film becomes a rushed lesson on hip hop’s growth and evolution through the 90s, featuring cameos by the likes of Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and 2Pac (Marcc Rose) set against the rise of Death Row Records. Maybe he should have saved that material for a sequel (Straight Outta Contracts: [rimshot]) instead of appending it to this movie, where it does little but distract from the significance of N.W.A.’s social impact.
For all Straight Outta Compton’s better merits—notably performance and craftsmanship—biopic expectations flatten it into an altogether conventional work. Much of the second hour languishes until arriving at its climax, built upon the sad death of Eazy-E. That, at least, gives Straight Outta Compton an excuse to bring its leads back into the frame with one another after keeping them apart for huge chunks of the film’s running time. It’s a moving, graceful send-off preceded by an excess of padding. As the film ends, we’re still left with the music, which remains as vital today as it did in 1988. If Gray’s efforts fall prey to genre formalities, at least he’s able to remind us of what N.W.A. accomplished by letting their accomplishments speak for themselves.
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
Starring: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti, R. Marcus Taylor
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.