Age of ‘Compton’: N.W.A With Artificial Sweeteners

Universal Pictures

How helpful of Straight Outta Compton to let us know where in South Los Angeles we are, and in which year, and the names of the various characters. We see a guy chilling, prone, on a carpet of LPs wearing a set of headphones and some type lets us know that this is Andre Young, also known as Dr. Dre. And that little dude with the juicy Jheri curl who just barged into a dealer’s drug den looking to get paid? That’s Eric Wright, who goes by Eazy-E. When their five-man rap outfit, N.W.A, defies law enforcement’s pre-concert demand that “Fuck tha Police” go unperformed, we’re told we’re in Detroit.

The exposition shows up for other things, too. For instance, I, at least, was happy to know that the poolside bouncing and jiggling we see at some point is at “Eazy-E’s Wet N’ Wild Party” and not some other thing at, say, Bobby Brown’s house. Then there’s the melee at “The New Music Seminar” between former N.W.A lyricist and snarler-in-chief Ice Cube and the group’s loyalists. The tags are as selective as the film’s memory of events. There’s one that reads “Death Row Records, 1991,” yet, given the robustly compromised corniness afflicting this movie, none for such unavoidable Los Angeles–movie enclaves as East Cliché and West Gollywood.

On the one hand, the movie’s mere existence constitutes some kind of cultural triumph. It once seemed impossible to imagine a Hollywood film about a group that called itself Niggaz With Attitude. That attitude was absorbed by American culture until it emanated from the center; until the perception of rappers evolved from terrors and trouble-makers (for the FBI in N.W.A’s case) to chic accessories, and rap became something like a pop food group. What was nationally terrifying about N.W.A in the late 1980s and early 1990s hasn’t become safe, per se, but, thanks to the lubricants of capitalism, it’s certainly palatable and profitable. Dr. Dre was once infamous for such incidents as a physical attack on the rapper and radio host Dee Barnes after she conducted an interview with Ice Cube. Now he’s the impresario who brought you Eminem and a brand of ubiquitous fashion headphones, and who recently struck a traffic-stoppingly lucrative deal with Apple. (Dre has called himself the first billionaire in hip-hop.) Meanwhile, Ice Cube went from eclectically produced works of panoramic militancy and kaleidoscopic intolerance (AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator are the classics) to PG-rated family movies and enough cop and detective roles to staff a sitcom precinct.

That kind of topsy-turvy, irony-laden cultural shift makes it possible for a movie like Straight Outta Compton to observe the group through the retrospective lens of success as opposed to reckoning with what it and its peers represented back then to white America: insurrection. We know the story ends with a ka-ching. The director is F. Gary Gray, who made videos for Dr. Dre, including “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” and directed Ice Cube 20 years ago in Friday, which Straight Outta Compton takes unnatural pains to identify him writing. He’s also listed as a coproducer with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. This is to say there’s no classified information here. Straight Outta Compton is so beholden to the appeasement of so many artists and legacies and estates that none of it coheres as a movie. There’s no point of view — just the masculinized version of the generically entertaining bitchery you find on nighttime soaps. But should the story of five gangsta-rappers from Compton feel this much like Melrose Place? For almost two and a half hours, the movie details — with the finesse of a paint roller — blowups, the making of solo records, reconciliations, and medical demise. (If we didn’t know that Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995, the character’s coughing jags in the second half are our warning.)

Compton3Universal Pictures

The film opens in 1986 with the whirr of a low-flying helicopter, which is the MGM lion roar of gangsta films. There’s a night raid of a Compton home, featuring a battering ram and dozens of agents in military gear that makes you understand the need for place markers — lest you think we were in Fallujah. Otherwise, the early scenes are loose and playful. The group comes together in and around the nightclub where Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins) and Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), spin records in flammable-looking chauffeur costumes. The club’s manager, Alonzo Williams (Corey Reynolds), just wants them to play mid-tempo, baby-making hits. But one night Dre puts on Steve Arrington’s drop-everything-and-dance club jam, “Weak at the Knees,” and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father) gets up and barks freestyle over the top of it, winding up with the phrase, “I don’t give a fuck,” which would serve as the group’s go-to license to assault.

They decide to form a group bankrolled by money from Eazy’s drug business. They audition rappers but when the tryouts don’t like Ice Cube’s lyrics the group members wind up doing the rapping themselves. (Aldis Hodge plays MC Ren, né Lorenzo Patterson, the fifth original member of the group and even more of a nonentity here than DJ Yella.) Singles are pressed and distributed, request lines burn up. And one day, rather quickly, a business manager introduces himself at the pressing plant, promising that HE knows the right people to make them a success. His name’s Jerry Heller, and he’s got an ashy complexion, an endless supply of sweatsuits, and the full investment of Paul Giamatti’s bulldog acting.1

Heller gets the group signed to Priority Records, which releases Straight Outta Compton. Fame, notoriety, and squabbling ensue. Why, for instance, isn’t Ice Cube being paid as he should? And why’s Eazy the only member with a contract? The breakdown of the group produces the occasional LOL moment, like when Ice Cube’s wife, Kimberly Woodruff (Alexandra Shipp), hears that Eazy called her husband “Benedict Arnold” on N.W.A’s “Message to B.A.” and asks, “Is he trying to call you a traitor?” Which is almost like having a female character in a football movie inquire as to what a touchdown is.

Bad business becomes the narrative engine, but most of the good scenes are set in recording studios: Dre directing Eazy to nasally stardom for the opening line of “Boyz-n-the Hood”; the sequence in which Ice Cube’s recording “No Vaseline” as his old groupmates and Heller react in horror to hearing it for the first time. That song is still shocking, not just for the rawness of its homophobia, but also for the totality of its attack. Lots of rappers were violent, but Ice Cube had the voice of a man who understood the deadliness of his lyrics. The group spent its apex, in part, defending its First Amendment rights. But, at his most dangerous, Ice Cube seemed protected by the second.

Compton4Universal Pictures

That “No Vaseline” scene reintroduces Ice Cube’s ingenious bellicosity. It also suggests that his son could be a star. Based only on this movie, he’s a more supple, emotionally transparent actor than his father. There’s no trace of his dad’s humorlessness. There’s a hotel-sex-party scene that embodies the misogyny on N.W.A’s first album and lets Jackson, who pushes a half-naked woman out of the room into the hallway, have the line of the night: “Bye, Felicia!” It’s outrageously mean, but so perfectly done that the audience applauds. And Jackson’s energy cuts the flippant cruelty of that scene. His is the only performance other than Giamatti’s that’s allowed to breathe. Who knows what else Jackson can do? Who knows what else he’ll be allowed to do? Hollywood is overpopulated with underemployed young black actors, but Jackson deserves more work and in smarter movies.

This is as muddled as a movie that’s been produced — but neither written nor directed — by representatives of discrete, if not outright competitive, sides can be. Dre and Ice Cube have ensured that their legacies are telegraphed as early and often as possible, and that Eazy-E has the warmth of a slanket. His is the gauziest reappraisal. The character goes from the sort of thug who screeches lines like, “Bitch, I just told you I’m not thirsty” to the guy with a warm, filial relationship with Heller, where Eazy’s savvy, sensitivity, and intelligence flourish. Their professional bond also makes the other men in the group uncomfortable — Eazy’s heterosexual promiscuity comes up in throwaway lines, but it’s his love for and trust in Heller that gives the film what little emotional center it has. Straight Outta Compton discards that — and with it Heller, who goes under the bus, trapped, justly or not, in a crooked-manager plot. Here, it’s Mrs. Eazy who goes over the books and tries to wake her husband up. You probably couldn’t have broken one rapper out from this story and given him an arc without the others crying foul. But each of these men has undergone an evolution that one movie can’t do much with. (DJ Yella, for example, made a killing in the adult-film world.) So what you’ve got is a bunch of strolling contradictions.

It’s not an oral history you’re getting with Straight Outta Compton, just the smushy boilerplate that happens anytime screenwriters (here it’s Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) get near musicians. This is Behind the Music stuff that never goes far enough behind. There are cameos by someone pretending to be Tupac and by Keith Stanfield, who’s pretty great in his couple of scenes as Snoop Dogg. But by this point, you’re no longer in a film; you’re on a Wikipedia page conveyor belt. In fairness, were I telling a story that involved Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) — record executive, Dre’s ex-business partner, and convicted criminal — I’d be a fool not to do something with him. But this movie leans so desperately on Knight’s purported evil that it even keeps him clad in satanic red. Every scene in his presence reroutes the movie toward psycho-thriller camp.

This seems ludicrous for a film about young black men being released at this moment, a year after a summer where poor police-community relations roiled the country again. But Straight Outta Compton demonstrates a merely flirtatious awareness of the reality of what’s happening now. Its strongest scenes — the ones in which Gray’s characteristic muscularity and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s usual richness come off their leashes — involve the tension between the black community and law enforcement. The movie has pungent encounters with the Los Angeles Police Department, first when officers assault members of the group (“I’m the original gangster up in here,” one white officer more or less says, before he throws Ice Cube on the hood of a car), and later, when an absurd run-in precedes a car chase involving Dre. There’s another scene in Detroit between the group and the dozens of officers who’ve come out to demand that the group omit their anti-cop hit from their show. They do the song and are arrested, leaving behind a riot, notable for the number of young, white hands banging on the police van as it speeds off with the group. Rap’s decade-long drift to the center was almost complete.

But the most distressing LAPD run-in happens during a recording session in beachy Torrance, a city just south and west of Compton with scarcely a black resident. The guys have broken for lunch when a handful of cops descend upon them. The suddenness of the takedown is clumsily staged, but Gray maintains his composure, and the boldness sticks with you. The presiding officer is black and speaks to Dre and Eazy and the gang with the hateful disregard typically used in the movies by white officers. The power of the encounter comes at you from all sides. Heller’s outrage feels like disillusionment. He really can’t understand what’s happening. He sees his partners stomach-down on the pavement, and it hurts him. He tells the officer that these young men are artists — rappers — to which the cop replies that rap’s not an art. It’s the exact opposite racial position in which Giamatti found himself in 12 Years a Slave, where the trader he played acquired and sold black bodies with cold-blooded hauteur. Here he’s seething over their mistreatment, and it’s the rare example the movies have in which white people’s speaking on behalf of black people rocks you — because when these black men try to speak for themselves, no one’s listening. You know what “eureka” songwriting moment that confrontation will produce, and you can’t wait to see it happen. You crave the anger and defiance of that song.

Perhaps it’s that bloodlust for simple musical justice that keeps most of the rest of this movie so light, so detached from what still happens in this country. The filmmakers want to be “responsible” or “positive” or just wishfully forward-thinking. So please, bring on Jimmy Iovine, the music-business mogul and Dre’s work partner, whose progressiveness is presented as the antidote to the Jerry Hellers and Suge Knights of the world. Let’s have Dre meet Iovine at the same unnamed pool party where he meets his future and forever wife, Nicole. In the end, Straight Outta Compton seems almost terrified of the power it has, of the history it’s fooling around with. Rick Famuyiwa’s drug farce from June, Dope, was another movie set in and out of the South Los Angeles underclass (Inglewood) that seemed afraid of the incendiary potential of its material. Both movies are peddling a perfume rather than the reality of their respective locales. They imply the alternative narratives that exist in, say, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep from 1978, but it’s way more viable to reconsecrate what we assume to be true about these neighborhoods and who lives there. Straight Outta Compton stresses the exit, the “outta,” as all optimistic ‘hood movies try to. In doing so, this movie neutralizes the power of what made it possible for N.W.A to leave.

Worst, it all but forsakes the brief but inexorable moment when these five black males were the most riveting men in popular culture, hailing from one of the country’s epicenters of racial dismay. The movie tosses into the dramatic mix stock news footage depicting Compton’s danger and socioeconomic sink. On the news, poor black neighborhoods — The Ghetto — were nightmares white people were trained to fear, as were the black people who lived there. N.W.A blasted out of the nightmare, amplifying the threat. The music on that first album was crude and non-ideological (Dre’s production gave it artistic depth). The songs made no greater demands than for the nation’s attention. They weren’t coming for you. They were already here.

Compton2Universal Pictures

Where the intended audience saw scary black boys, I saw bullies: high school slur-slinging, tray-slapping, wedging-giving bullies. It was almost scientific. I didn’t like N.W.A because N.W.A didn’t like me. The word “straight” sounded like a defensive threat. But there was an immediate empowerment in the flagrance of some of those songs. Whatever people heard in the Sex Pistols that sent them either ducking for cover or to the guitar shop is what happened in my world with N.W.A. No one had heard anything like this before. The Last Poets weren’t this blunt. Neither was Gil Scott-Heron. The first time I said “fuck,” “the,” and “police,” I whispered them into a locker, and it was like sticking a fork into a wall socket.

N.W.A didn’t invent “scary” as the black-male trope. They perfected it. The album Straight Outta Compton was released the same year that Orion Pictures released Colors, a movie made by well-meaning macho white liberals that wants so badly to be about the scourge of bad policing but turns the black and Latino gangs into subservient morons and the crooked young nutso cop into a hero. N.W.A seemed to spring from an allergic reaction to depictions like that. They arrived at a moment, during the 1980s and early 1990s, in which strange and scary black men seemed to be everywhere — in the scandalous, misunderstood photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, as the men railroaded to plead guilty for a gang rape in Central Park, and as crooks in almost every crime show on television. N.W.A seemed to reappropriate and harness all of that supposed guilt and rub it in America’s face.

Their scariness was certainly opportunistic. They’d take societal menace as far as it could go. In the film, that arrest in Detroit inspires dollar signs. But in those police-confrontation scenes, you can see where the rage comes from. That’s real. Being fearsome was probably the only innate power otherwise available to a powerless kid from South Los Angeles. No one wants to hear that, since it confirms the worst realities about who we’re not supposed to be as a country. There are clips of the Rodney King beating, in 1991, and a brief re-staging of the ensuing riots and uprisings. But Straight Outta Compton doesn’t want to psychologize. It seems terrified to more directly connect that music to both its human and societal sources. It’s easier to make the hip-hop Avengers. Something that group did struck a raw nerve. But now everybody responsible for that moment seems content to remind us that they also struck it rich.

Filed Under: Movies, Straight Outta Compton, NWA, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre