Straight Outta Compton doesn’t exactly qualify as a nontraditional biopic; in terms of structure, it mostly adheres to the rise/fall narrative with the option for an additional rise. Earlier this summer, the Brian Wilson movie Love and Mercy toyed with those boundaries with far more innovation. But even set half in the ’80s, Love and Mercy, like so many movies about popular music, was rooted in baby boomer music of the ’60s; Straight Outta Compton, in telling the mostly sanctioned story of N.W.A., actually starts in the 1986, which still counts as a novelty. True to its title, the movie roots itself in the streets of Los Angeles and surrounding environs; an early scene catching Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) in a drug raid looks positively apocalyptic. But the imagery doesn’t just come from gang violence; it’s the police battering ram tearing apart a house that makes the scene look so untenable.
As the movie skips from Eazy to a young Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his dad), police harassment is a common theme, along with the recurring image of black men being slammed against car hoods for no reason. Cube and Dre are more interested in lyric-writing and DJing, respectively, than the drug trade, and E wants out, too. But even when they’ve signed up with a manager (Paul Giamatti) who looks shadier as the movie progresses but downright friendly in the context of Compton, the cops won’t leave them alone: putting them on the ground, asking what they’re doing outside a recording studio, daring them to fight back. Some of this is broad (“rap is not an art!” one cop – a middle-aged black man – spits contemptuously); it’s also feels undeniably and depressingly relevant. Pop biopics often traffic in simplistic song origins, but when Straight Outta Compton cuts hard from N.W.A. getting harassed on the streets into them performing “Fuck Tha Police,” it’s not just a pat explanation of a famous and controversial song. It makes audiences (some of whom will not have experienced racism firsthand) feel the song’s righteous frustration. To put it in my dorky white terms: it feels fucking punk rock.
Continue reading East Coast vs. West Coast: On Straight Outta Compton and Fort Tilden