If only Tim Dog were alive today. The late Bronx firestarter behind the minor but incendiary hit “Fuck Compton” — a big ole middle-finger to the self-proclaimed “most dangerous group” in the world N.W.A. — would likely have blown up the Twitterverse with multiple 140 character posts reminding people that Dr. Dre had assaulted Dee Barnes, the host of the music video show Pump It Up.
Dog would likely remind followers that Beats By Dre are also shitty headphones.
And he’d definitely remind people that the not-so good doctor — now a foe of sampling — built his career on sampling Funkadelic, Wilson Pickett, the Ohio Players, and James Brown, all without paying the original artists a dime. “Fuck Compton” indeed.
As for myself, the rap equivalent of a Star Wars/Star Trek/Doctor Who/Fill-in-the-blank-with-the-sci-fi-work-of-your-choice nerd would be right there retweeting and favoriting away. Truth be told, I refuse to forget what rap has meant to me ever since I, like Robbie Van Winkle, found it on a two-way street.
Alongside Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Ghetto Boy’s Grip It on That Other Level, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising to name a few, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton stayed in my Walkman throughout all of 1989. While I was always more of a P.E. kid myself, I was just as aware of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince, The D.O.C., and MC Ren.
Their output was controversial, for sure, thanks to lyrics that many deemed sexist, racist, violent, vulgar, and lacking in any sort of redeeming social value. Those elements alone were enough to perk up a few ears, but N.W.A. didn’t truly strike fear into the heart of the establishment until white teens began reciting the lyrics to “Straight Outta Compton.” Like Black Lives Matter protesters at a Bernie Sanders rally, N.W.A.’s blunt words made liberals and conservatives uncomfortable.
Their impact was undeniable, and the past couple years have given N.W.A. a mythic glow thanks to their song , “Fuck Tha Police.” It’d be nice if N.W.A.’s anti-police screed was merely an intriguing musical footnote born from a rap group’s paranoid fantasy, but as a result of the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Cary Ball Jr.,Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Freddie Gray, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, and Sandra Bland, those words remain just as relevant as ever.
When I first heard about F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, I had an overwhelming feeling of dread. The trailers felt like biopic 101 to my inner Ebert while the rap fanboy in me was bothered that MC Ren wasn’t given any shine. The fact that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were producing the film told me that the probability of self-adulation was high while self-examination and objectivity would likely take a backseat. The posters themselves seemed to give the five lads from Compton an almost prophetic glow.
I kept wondering: Why not make a movie about First Amendment darlings 2 Live Crew? How about a movie about the unheralded gangsta rap pioneer Schoolly D? What about a biopic based on the three personalities of The Geto Boys — a loudmouth ladies man named Willie D, a gangsta rapper with bouts of depression in the form of Scarface, and Bushwick Bill, a shit-talking dwarf who would later lose an eye in a failed suicide attempt? And where is a biopic about the other Ice, Tracy Lauren Marrow? He started off as a honest-to-God gangbanger that left it all behind to rap, formed a hardcore metal band called Body Count, and then became a TV star best known for helping Richard Belzer solve cases.
Given all this, I was ready to dislike Straight Outta Compton. Even with all my nerdish protestations, I constantly had to remind myself going in that most biopics leave out their subjects’ many flaws. The strife that Johnny Cash put his family through during his drug-addled years was down-played in Walk the Line. Meryl Streep’s Oscar bait The Iron Lady tended to gloss over some of the more troubling aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s rule — rampant unemployment, disenfranchisement, unrest. Steven Spielberg’s peppy fun biopic, Catch Me If You Can, gave Lowcountry resident Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s deceptions a beautiful sheen that reality would likely disagree with. Despite their omissions and trivialization of the facts, these films are enjoyable on their own. However if you walked into one of these movies with a shitload of knowledge floating around in the back of your head, you may have a harder time separating them from the film in front of you. Therein lies my problem with Straight Outta Compton.
Make not mistake, it’s a very good movie. The people I watched it with got caught up in the film from the moment the Universal logo spun while announcing “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” They laughed when a scene involving a groupie turned into a “Bye Felicia” joke. The audience members got caught up in the visceral vibes when classic rap tracks bumped throughout the theater. The film hits all the right emotional beats and successfully goes through many biopic tropes. The protagonists are likable through their ups and downs. The actors (particularly Jason Mitchell’s portrayal as Eazy-E) are on their A-game. While I would recommend Straight Outta Compton to the most casual of N.W.A. fans as well as my friends and family, I’d be reticent to endorse it to ardent, nerd-ish fans of rap.
If I was able to ignore the absence of anything regarding the Dee Barnes incident — by all accounts Dre beat her to a pulp — it would still bug me that the film seemed to be okay with the lionization of the group while down-playing the misogynistic nature of N.W.A.’s music.
Waking up the white American collective to police brutality was a great bonus, but NWA, first and foremost, was about being shocking. One only need look at their final album Efil4Zaggin, an album that gleefully offends at every turn, for proof. Full disclosure: I don’t say this out of any mock moral indignation or offense because I own that album and a few others that are just as shocking and gleefully vulgar. I only mention this because it would’ve been interesting to see the dichotomy of the artists in relation to their art.
I’m aware it’s unrealistic to expect a summer biopic to successfully release a profitable warts-and-all film about a deified rap group solely for the anal-retentive completists. That said, as much as I tried, I couldn’t let myself relax into this film. I couldn’t get over how little focus was put on Ren’s contribution to the group. I couldn’t get past mild timeline inconsistencies with regards to the songs played in certain scenes. I couldn’t get over hearing Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s respective diss songs directed at Eazy-E, but not hear E’s song directed back at Dr. Dre. Again, I know this all nitpicky nerd shit, but it stuck with me.
As it stands, NWA has left an indelible mark on American culture, and Straight Outta Compton is a technically solid film. While it would require large huevos and a great writer to reduce some of the lionization, to have addressed some of the side stories and uglier moments in the group’s heyday, it perfectly captures an era. However, it would be nice to see a biopic that didn’t mind removing the halo from its subject sto reveal their flawed humanity. I think even Tim Dog would’ve been okay with that.
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