After selecting a 2014 film the first time around, Anahita went for a 2015 film this time, for what seems very likely to be the most recent pair (define metric here) of films yet shown at Cinema 1544. The film she chose was F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, a biopic covering the rise and fall of one of the early gangsta rap groups, N.W.A.
As the title of the film (and also N.W.A.’s first album) would suggest, the group came together from the mean streets of Compton, a low-income suburb of Los Angeles. The film actually starts with one of the very few of criminal activity portrayed in the movie – a scene where Eazy E is is arguing over a drug deal when the police bust into the drug house with a tank. E gets out through a window, allowing him to eventually decide to go straight and to meet up with Ice Cube (the poetry-slamming lyricist) and Dr. Dre, the DJ, along with a few lesser-portrayed members (notably DJ Ren and MC Yella), none of whom appear to have any real criminal past – though Cube is shown to be harassed by police simply trying to go home, and the theme of conflict between N.W.A. (as basically representatives of Compton) and the police will pervade the film.
After playing a few successful club shows, Eazy E is approached by music agent Jerry Heller, who convinces E to sign him on, and Heller starts navigating them through the music biz, though eventually there will be a lot of friction between the rest of the group and E over what they perceive to be unfair treatment (delays in getting contracts, for one) and alleged financial mismanagement. But before things go south, they’ve got to got to be far enough north to turn around – and that starts by getting into the studio.
One day during the recording sessions for Straight Outta Compton, the group steps out of their Torrance studio for some air and get pretty seriously shaken down by some cops for the classic “breathing while black”. While Heller eventually convinces the police that they are there recording a music album and not causing trouble, the entire group is quite angry about the incident, and it prompts Ice Cube to write what will become one of the major hits on the album – “Fuck tha Police”.
Naturally, the next step is for N.W.A. to go on tour, and as you might expect they have a tendency to have a lot of women in various states of undress in their hotel rooms. On one occasion, a few toughs show up at the room looking for one of their girlfriends, and the band members chase them off with superior firepower. Firepower that one would guess might fall afoul of several federal gun bans at this point in time, hey, I don’t really know. And outside of a single upcoming marijuana sale this would be pretty much the extent of the criminal activity carried out by members of N.W.A. in the movie.
Well, that is, if you don’t count openly defying the orders of the police to NOT play “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit – which results in the cops storming the stage and the band attempting to escape but being apprehended and arrested in the streets outside the arena. Nothing really comes of it, but it’s yet another example of the antagonism between N.W.A. and the police. The remainder of the tour is mostly unremarkable outside of the death (back in Compton) of Dre’s younger brother and of course the increasing uneasiness with Heller, which prompts Ice Cube to leave the group and go solo following the tour.
This naturally results in one of the Epic Rap Battles Of History, with Cube and the remaining members of N.W.A. trading disses on subsequent releases until producer Suge Knight convinces Dr. Dre to leave the band and N.W.A. dissolves after only two albums. Suge Knight becomes the true criminal villain of the film – he’s a completely unstable and despicable guy who among other things resorts to severely beating Eazy E in order to get Dre and the other members of N.W.A. released from their contracts. Eazy E decides on murdering Suge in retaliation, but makes the “mistake” of confessing his plan to Heller, who talks him out of it.
The film insists on name-dropping and event-referencing, and in addition to having cameos from Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur characters the 1992 Los Angeles riots are also briefly portrayed, though without any real advancement to the plot, more as a point of reference. The iconic image chosen for the L.A. riots is a pair of red and blue bandanas tied together representing the solidarity of the Bloods and the Crips in the face of the police.
Eventually Eazy E leaves Heller and Dr. Dre leaves Suge, and E tries to mend some fences and get the band back together. Dre and Ice Cube are on board, but E falls ill – it turns out that he has to his shock contracted AIDS in his promiscuous (heterosexual) lifestyle, and the film basically ends with Eazy E’s death.
All in all, it’s a well-made film, but there are a couple of things that prevent me from giving it a wholehearted endorsement. Most importantly, at least for me as a non-fan of the group and musical style, the story of the rapid rise and fall of the band is simply not a compelling enough narrative. I’ll admit that I’ve watched and thoroughly enjoyed a Rush documentary that most people would find duller than all get out, and that’s to be expected for such a specialized-audience film, but I really want a major studio release to find a way to grip me, and Straight Outta Compton didn’t manage to do that.
A second thing is that the film does play at least a bit fast and loose with the truth. Notably, the Detroit arrests did not go down anything like portrayed in the film – the stage was not stormed, the band members went back to their hotel, and they were subsequently picked up in the lobby when they came back down from their rooms to grab some groupies. A portrayal of Eazy E losing a mansion to foreclosure apparently never happened. While Eazy E did die of AIDS, there doesn’t seem to be good evidence of a real reconciliation with Dre and Cube. And the portrayal of the gansgta rappers as, oddly enough, pretty much law-abiding citizens seems a bit weird – I mean either they’re whitewashing their pasts or these guys were some pretty serious posers. I don’t know which, but neither would make me reflect more kindly on the film. I think it’s notable that Dre and Cube are both producers on the film (as is Eazy E’s widow) so it’s not terribly surprising that incidents like Dr. Dre’s assault of a female news reporter and other allegations of violence against women somehow didn’t make it into the film, and that the only people who actually commit criminal activity are Eazy E (deceased), Suge Knight (now on trial for vehicular murder) and Jerry Heller (white-collar, now suing the producers of the film for defamation). When you’re writing and producing your own autobiography…I bet there are some really neat insights in here for those who have had a longstanding interest in the group, but I get the feeling that the light in which N.W.A. is painted is probably chosen to highlight their best features.
And finally, while I don’t know whether the image that was used as emblematic of the L.A. riots of the Bloods and Crips symbolically uniting against the police is based on a real incident, I can say that as someone who watched in despair as the riots unfolded on live TV, the emblematic image of the riots to me was rather the savage beating of Reginald Denny. I suppose perspectives differ.