Straight Outta Compton isn’t Ray or Walk the Line—two award-winning music biopics about Blues great Ray Charles and Country giant Johnny Cash—but it is a necessary addition to both the music biopic and in hip-hop’s growing film canon. Not since the ‘90s has a film captured the essence of hip-hop this well. When the genre’s success was new and fresh, films like Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, House Party, and Friday told our story the way we wanted it to be told. But between then and now something changed.
Hollywood hasn’t caught up with the rest of pop culture: Rap is still shunned, even though it’s quickly becoming America’s most popular music genre. Why? Because—to quote Nas—America’s nightmare was given a mic booth. N.W.A., maybe more than any other rap act, made that Nas line true. The groundbreaking rap group was indeed the country’s nightmare. Compton was supposed to be a crime-free suburb of Los Angeles, but gangs and drugs crept in, turning the children of blue-collar, middle-class parents to a life of crime. Cube, Eazy, Ren, and Dre told that story with unrelenting honesty.
Rap is still shunned upon, even though it’s quickly becoming America’s most popular music genre.
The film tells the story of gangsta rap’s ascension into the mainstream. America’s infatuation with violence helped catapult the subgenre from the streets of the inner city to the suburbs and beyond. White America ate that shit up. Black and brown kids did the same. Reality raps gave the voiceless a voice. Public Enemy set it off with their analysis of black life in the U.S., and N.W.A. followed up with life in a war-zone filled with gangs, guns and drugs.
Compton is well made, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Ice Cube and director F. Gary Gray were behind it—the two filmmakers already have a classic under their belt with Friday. It tells the story of one of rap’s most influential groups, the way they wanted it to be told. They touch on ghostwriting—a conversation that's recently exploded in the rap community after Meek Mill accused Drake of employing some. They also put a spotlight on the relationship between the police and people of color, and on the relationship between artists and record labels.
This needed this to work, for many reasons, but majorly because Notorious was so shitty. The 2009 movie about the life and times of the Notorious B.I.G. was enjoyable at times, but it fit the mold of a Lifetime movie rather than a proper Hollywood production. It was unfortunate because Big deserved a much bigger (no pun intended), better film. We didn't learn anything we didn't know already. The entire filmed rushed through Big's achievements, and we didn't learn more about the man, Christopher Wallace.
It’s also looking like the 2Pac biopic is headed in the same direction. John Singleton, one of the most prominent black directors in film, left production because, as he said in an Instagram post several months back, “the people involved aren't really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.” That lends credence to Hollywood’s dismissive attitude towards not only hip-hop, but people of color in general. Singleton has been in the game long enough to recognize the jig.
The criticisms of Straight Outta Compton are fair, though. The timing of events towards the end seemed to be off. Like when 2Pac and Dr. Dre talk about recording “California Love” in 1993, according to the film—the truth is ‘Pac got out of jail and didn't sign to Death Row until 1995. The very next scene showed Cube and Eazy-E talking about an N.W.A. reunion at a club. Eazy died in March of ‘95. Where the beginning of the film fleshed out how they first met, and started to become the West Coast's answer to Public Enemy's rebellious attitude, the ending felt more rushed. They also never mentioned the recording of the D.O.C.’s classic No One Can Do It Better even though he was in a bunch of scenes, one of which included the career-changing car accident that destroyed his vocal cords.
Even with its setbacks, the film set the bar for rap biopics to come.
Some folks are also upset about the time an intoxicated Dr. Dre assaulted female journalist Dee Barnes at a party in 1991 because her show’s producer included an Ice Cube clip within a segment about N.W.A. while they were beefing. That seemed like an interesting omission, especially because the problems between Cube and the group played a prominent role in the film (though remember, Dre is an executive producer on Straight Outta Compton). The filmmakers also gave off the vibe that the group liked Cube's N.W.A. diss records, which is revisionist history at its best. If that were they case, Dre would've never assaulted Barnes, and the group wouldn't had said she deserved it. If we're gonna keep it one hunnid, let's keep it one hunnid.
Rap deserves better. Only three films did their subjects justice and all of them were only semi-biographical: Krush Groove, 8 Mile, and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Compton is on that level. Even with its setbacks, the film has set the bar for rap biopics to come. Let's hope these kinds of films become the norm as the genre continues to age and gain more popularity. Can we get Michael B. Jordan to play Kanye West one day?