“Straight Outta Compton” is the second movie released this year in which Paul Giamatti plays a sinister impresario connected to musical genius. And while he’s equally unnerving as music impresario Jerry Heller and Eugene Landy, the psychologist who took control of Brian Wilson’s (Paul Dano as a young Wilson, John Cusack as Wilson in later years) life in “Love & Mercy,” it’s no contest as to which Giamatti picture is the better depiction of the actual music-making process.
There’s an early scene in “Straight Outta Compton” where Dre (Corey Hawkins) essentially teaches Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to rap, helping him find the beat he’s supposed to hit and coaching him into expressing the conviction that would make “Boyz N Tha Hood” N.W.A.’s breakout song. But otherwise it’s pastiche; an encounter with the cops outside a Torrance, Calif., studio leads seamlessly into “F— Tha Police”; a very young Snoop Dogg (the always hugely welcome Keith Stanfield) hangs out at the house where Dre is at work on a beat that will become “Nuthin But a G Thang” and begins rapping a final draft of the lyrics; “California Love” blooms, fully finished, from the speakers while Tupac (Marcc Rose) is at work.
“Love & Mercy” was animated by director Bill Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner’s insight that even geniuses have to put in the work to make great art. Watching the sweat equity that Wilson put into “Pet Sounds” illuminated the tension between the Beach Boys themselves and between Wilson and his father (Bill Camp) in a way that none of the discussions about money in “Straight Outta Compton” really serve to do. And while suggesting in “Straight Outta Compton” that every track on the iconic album (and many that followed) arrived in the world fully formed may imply that Dre in particular is a genius, it also makes the whole process of making music seem a little boring.
The way “Straight Outta Compton” treats music has justifiably gotten much less attention than director F. Gary Gray’s decision to exclude an important part of N.W.A.’s story: the role of women as both collaborators and label mates, and as victims of violence. But both choices are animated by a lack of interest in the rough sides of process and personality, and to a certain extent, a lack of trust that the audience will be kept engaged for 2½ hours by anything but hagiography.
“Straight Outta Compton” is comfortable depicting its characters treating women poorly, even violently, as long as the women in question are entirely disposable. Our introduction to Eazy-E involves him viciously cussing a drug dealer’s girlfriend for the simple crime of getting him a 40 at the dealer’s request. Later in the scene, when members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums squad show up to raid the house with a motorized battering ram, E flees the house, slamming a refrigerator door into the woman with such force that she’s thrown across the room.
After N.W.A. goes on tour to support “Straight Outta Compton,” Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) throws Felicia (Asia’h Epperson), a groupie who has been having oral sex with another member of the group, out into a hotel hallway after a man claiming to be her boyfriend shows up toting a gun. To me, it was an ugly scene: I felt such fear for this young woman, thrown out of a hotel suite, nearly naked, at the mercy of whatever violence her boyfriend felt justified in meting out to her. But I’m not sure it’s intended that way. Felicia isn’t a person in “Straight Outta Compton”; she’s an Easter egg for the audience, an origin story for a meme. The film’s sympathies are with the members of N.W.A., with their cleverness in finding a way to sacrifice a woman that will protect them from the consequences of their own profligacy.
And women like Dee Barnes, Michel’le and Tairrie B, all of whom had longer-standing professional and personal relationships with members of N.W.A., and all of whom were allegedly beaten by members of the group, don’t appear anywhere in “Straight Outta Compton.” There’s no question that the movie leaves out their worst acts and that Gray preserves a clear line between their conduct and that of the movie’s villains. For all that Eazy-E looks out for himself first, he lacks Jerry Heller’s avarice and endless self-justification. And for all that Dre craves independence and control, “Straight Outta Compton” suggests that he’s appalled by business partner Suge Knight’s (R. Marcos Taylor) capacity for violence and tendency to implement his business decisions with force.
Part of what’s interesting about “Straight Outta Compton” is that although the characters position themselves as “hard,” the movie often presents them as strikingly emotional, even vulnerable. Gray gets terrific work out of his ensemble in these moments.
One of the most striking sequences in the film comes early, when O’Shea Jackson, soon to be known as Ice Cube, gets stopped by the police while he’s trying to cross the street to return to his own home. As the police curse his parents, Doris (Angela Elayne Gibbs) and Hosea (Bruce Beatty), who is left vainly asserting that the couple have the right to stand on their own front law, O’Shea’s lips twist in rage and shame. Later, Dre gets frisked by another cop, his face turning into a mask of disgust.
While fury in response to racism is an important motivation in “Straight Outta Compton,” and Gray mines it for both artistic inspirations and the characters’ drive to build their own companies, the film’s characters exist on a broader spectrum.
When Dre, who had encouraged his brother to stay in school rather than coming on tour with the group, learns that the boy has died in a fight, Hawkins does a tremendous job of portraying Dre’s struggle for control, even in front of his friends. “That’s my little brother, man,” Dre tells them, struggling not to weep, pounding one fist into his palm, locking his fingers together. “My little baby brother.” At a raucous news conference, Ice Cube, who has been fighting for a fair contract given his role in writing so many of the group’s lyrics, is asked by a black reporter, “What’s a guy from Compton do when he starts to make real money?” There’s a very long pause, and Jackson answers, with barely disguised anger and disappointment at his bandmates, “Buy Raiders gear. And curl activator.”
As the years advance, N.W.A. splits up and these very young men become adults, “Straight Outta Compton” shifts into melancholy. Ice Cube ruefully locks eyes with a cop on patrol while driving through the riots that burned through Los Angeles after Rodney King’s attackers were acquitted. As Eazy-E’s career wanes — he loses his house and returns to drug dealing — and, unbeknownst to him, he begins suffering from HIV symptoms, shame and regret creep into his interactions with his friends and with Heller. A scene where Eazy fires Heller has the melancholy and pain of the breakup of a romantic relationship. And after he falls into a coma, Dre weeps by his bedside and Ice Cube can’t even go into the hospital room. “I need to hear his voice, Dre. I can’t see him laid up like that,” Ice Cube tells his old friend, almost panicked with grief.
I don’t object to humanizing N.W.A. As a matter of art, these scenes bring out great acting. And as a matter of politics, they add dimensions to black men who were flattened by the media for years. But “Straight Outta Compton” participates in that flattening, even if the film works in a different, more flattering direction. It’s an incomplete movie in a way that precludes it from greatness. (A clunky script that mostly serves to highlight the strength of the performances that transcend it also weighs the movie down.)
It’s possible to acknowledge the fact that the same men who were made raw by police brutality and harassment, divided by business deals and their own ambitions, and ultimately separated by disease and death also hurt women. In fact, however much Gray wants to dismiss an attempt to reconcile these elements of his subjects’ lives as political correctness, it’s necessary to do these things; to tear down the pernicious lie that only monsters are criminals; and to reckon with the way that racism, police violence and violence against women and children might exist in the same, dangerously dynamic system. It doesn’t pass responsibility on to the LAPD to acknowledge that people who have been brutalized might pass their damage on to others. And just because “Straight Outta Compton” doesn’t depict members of N.W.A. attacking women doesn’t mean those events didn’t happen or that they’ll be forgotten.