You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge. That’s the line that begins N.W.A.’s 1988 gangsta rap masterpiece, Straight Outta Compton, and it’s also the line that bookends the sweeping new biopic of the same name. One of Dr. Dre’s only lyrical contributions to his group’s debut album, the line rings true in its original context as both a thesis statement and a kind of threat. N.W.A. was not a group to be fucked with — by cops or otherwise — and Dre made that clear by practically sneering at the listening public, setting up the antagonistic relationship that would define the group during its short existence. Straight Outta Compton the album is a lean, gritty, confrontational look at life on the streets. It’s also a force of nature, a thing of such velocity that it indeed must be witnessed rather than consumed in the typical manner.
Straight Outta Compton the film is something different. Despite an unwieldy runtime of 147 minutes, it’s a polished, respectful look back on the careers of five men who were rarely polished or respectful. When Ice Cube introduces himself as a “crazy motherfucker” on the album, he sets the stage for a revolving cast of narrators whose spittle-laced rhymes border on the psychotic. Here, however, director F. Gary Gray treats his subjects with a measured kind of reverence, which might have something to do with Cube and Dre sharing producer credits. The result feels like a gift to fans and the surviving members of the group, even if some key scenes are rosier or more self-congratulatory than they maybe should be.
Straight Outta Compton is really several films in one. The timeline spans nearly a decade, beginning with a botched drug deal involving Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and ending with the rapper’s death in 1995. That’s a lot of history to fit within a single movie, especially a movie with three central protagonists — Eazy, Cube, and Dre — instead of one.
(Album Review: Dr. Dre’s final album Compton)
Eazy’s story alone bounces along a rags-to-riches-to-rags roller coaster, though it’s also where most of the film’s humor and pathos can be found. Actor Jason Mitchell is electric, tapping into the unpredictable currents that made Eazy so memorable. The rest of the ensemble is mostly notable for their uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but Mitchell is on another level here. He’s a crackling ball of defiance and insecurity in an early scene that chronicles the making of “Boyz-n-the-Hood”. That defiance reappears later when we see him come to grips with his AIDS diagnosis through a hospital window, a moment so raw and devastating we’re thankful to not be in the room with him.
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t always succeed as a character study. The portrayals of Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real-life son) have their high moments, but the script dodges and weaves its way past uncomfortable moments that might lead us to reevaluate their motives. An antisemitic barb that Cube drops in his solo diss track “No Vaseline” is casually laughed off as fodder for journalists, while Dre comes off a little too well in his dealings with bad dude Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor).
When these guys are allowed to be vulnerable, like when Dre learns about his younger brother’s death or when Cube goes postal on a record exec’s office, one catches a glimpse of something that might be closer to the truth. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” Cube says in a press conference at one point, but one wonders how much reality these guys really wanted to express on film. Even their acrimonious relationship with Eazy feels like it’s given a rosier treatment than it deserves, with everyone able to make their peace by the end. Nowhere is there mention of the litany of diss tracks Eazy fired off in the years leading up to his death, presumably because that might complicate the film’s status as an homage to the late rapper.
Still, Straight Outta Compton isn’t scared to take a stance. One of the film’s greatest strengths lies in its unflinching brand of social commentary. Gray sticks his camera right in the faces of racist LAPD officers, and it’s at these moments when his film feels most relevant and least reverential. Police brutality has been an omnipresent issue since Michael Brown was killed a year ago, and the Black Lives Matter movement has helped to shine a light on the systemic injustices facing young black people across America. Watching scenes in which the N.W.A. crew is repeatedly abused and harassed by cops, one can’t help but draw a connection between then and now. “Fuck tha Police” remains a powerful song, and Gray does an admirable job of shining a light on its still-relevant source material.
Straight Outta Compton’s ambition occasionally exceeds its grasp, and it’s probably too clumsy to be considered a great film. But it never stops feeling important. Street knowledge works on several levels. N.W.A. created music as visceral and immediate as a sucker punch, and that’s certainly one version of reality. Another version takes longer to digest and comes after years of reflection. That’s the kind of knowledge you’ll find here. It’s not a perfect picture, and it sure as hell isn’t complete, but there’s something to be said for trying to turn what’s real into your own kind of truth.