The album that gives this musical biopic its name has been heralded as one of the most important in popular music. Straight Outta Compton (1988), by the Los Angeles rap outfit N.W.A. ("Niggaz Wit Attitudes"), thrust gangsta rap (or as characters in the film sometimes call it, "reality rap") into the mainstream, combining Dr. Dre's funk-fused production style with some of the most violent, enraged lyrics ever heard. The first three tracks, "Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck tha Police," and "Gangsta Gangsta" became particularly notorious for their murderous allusions. Critics called the record thuggish, unlistenable, and unmusical. Fans said it spoke the truth. The album sold three million copies.
Directed by F. Gary Gray (Be Cool), Straight Outta Compton revels in the group's controversy. When the members of N.W.A.—Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren—are arrested in Detroit for performing "Fuck tha Police," they're thrown into the back of an armored van; after the doors shut, the men bust up laughing, with high-fives all around. At the preview screening I attended, the crowd laughed too. This is a movie of mayhem, mouth-offs, and middle fingers.
Yet N.W.A. is a complete group for only about half the movie—Ice Cube (admirably portrayed by the rapper's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr.) breaks away for a solo career in 1989, and just like the collective he left behind, Straight Outta Compton deflates. The high stakes of the first act—including a much-noted letter of protest from an FBI public affairs officer to the group's record label—subside as Gray turns to the members' solo careers and diss tracks against each other. Dre's foray into label management with Death Row Records is good only for some forced Snoop Dogg and Tupac references. Eazy-E's struggles with N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller make for some of the best one-on-one scenes—Jason Mitchell is excellent as E, Paul Giamatti serviceably skunky as Heller—but their moments are fatty.
There are hints of a better film here. Matthew Libatique's camera hustles through the streets with purpose, and the Compton-centric scenes—a raid on a crack house, a sweep through the Rodney King riots—have a documentary-like feel. Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff flirt with the idea of critiquing N.W.A.'s polarizing influence on society, but they divide the men too soon to touch on anything meaningful. They might have foregrounded the album's still-relevant theme of class injustice, but despite an electric beginning, they veer away into low-risk interpersonal drama. This movie about a group of risk-takers should have taken more risks itself. v