Creating a biopic that stands out is hard. Thanks in part to the format’s popularity when it comes to awards season, they’ve become ubiquitous in recent years. What’s worse, they generally tend to follow a certain sweeping formula that tends to paint their subjects in broad strokes.*
With its focus on a group instead of an individual, and with the authorized use of these individuals and their music, Straight Outta Compton should be doomed to being formulaic. And eventually, it is. Like many biopics where the subjects have some sort of approval and credit (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E’s widow all have producing credits), there’s an attempt to sanitize the story to keep the subjects in the best possible light, at the expense of history. Still, at least as long as the film watches the members of N.W.A. as they ascend to the heights of fame as a group, there’s a certain magnetic pull to the material that’s underlined by connections to modern day political movements.
Opening in 1988 in Compton, the film follows Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) as they make their way out of the crime-ridden streets of Compton to become the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A (“Niggaz Wit Attitudes”), alongside members (and here, supporting players) Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.) and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge). The three main characters each form an integral part of the group and the narrative: Eazy-E provides the initial funding, as well as the deal with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti); Ice Cube serves as the genius lyricist who’s smart enough to realize Eazy-E and Heller were taking advantage of the group; and Dr. Dre is the musical wunderkind who’d eventually be lured out to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor).
There’s an explosive energy that permeates the film as N.W.A is formed and built into a group, even if there are clear indications that the story has been significantly streamlined in the way many musical biopics tend to do, where certain real-life events directly inform the creation of hit songs. The key to the success of the early scenes in particular lies with the performers, especially Mitchell, Hawkins, and Jackson Jr. Each give their respective artists a clear sense of humanity, along with the charisma necessary to create the level of star power their subjects generated decades ago.
That charisma is greatly appreciated, because the film tends to avoid much in the way of deeper characterization. It’s a shame, because the film has the potential to go beyond being a biopic and touch with more authority on the surroundings that helped create these men. Repeated scenes of police brutality have resonance, as the country is currently embroiled in discussions about the conflicts between race and power. The film seems to want those connections without delving deeper, which leads to one instance of being harassed by the police outside of a recording studio immediately turning itself into the recording of the group’s most notorious song, “Fuck tha Police.” Now, sure, this could be how the song actually came about, but it does fall in line with a standard biopic trope of streamlining content. The film runs just shy of two and a half hours, but incidents like the inspiration for “Fuck tha Police” are rather quickly glossed over in favor of other digressions which may be amusing, like the origins of “Bye, Felicia,” but don’t carry the same weight.
As the group begins to fall apart, though, so does the film. Money is the main reason the group fell apart, and to be fair, delving into business deals and contracts may not be an area that can hold the same resonance as the first half of the film. But the sources of conflict at this point change too, with the cops falling into the background and figures like Heller and Knight becoming more ominous. From this point, the film is more content to go through the motions of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s respective paths. The film does hint again at some potentially significant topics, particularly when Los Angeles descends into chaos following the Rodney King verdict. With the city going up in flames as the tensions presented in their music continue to become known, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are shown each driving in their cars separately, just passing through a world they used to inhabit. It’s a poignant scene, and one that leads nowhere deeper.
It’s disappointing, but hardly a surprise. Straight Outta Compton ultimately serves as the glowing image of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube that the people behind the film want, which means it doesn’t dig deep into these issues, let alone touch on the homophobic and misogynistic lyrics of the music or the incidents of violence against women that surrounded Dr. Dre. If the film had focused more on a part of the story with some substance, it would possibly have been more acceptable for the film to gloss over other sordid instances. As it stands, though, the film is merely a glimpse into the lives of the members of N.W.A that maintains its watchability more due to the strong performances of its cast than its story.