A review of the biopic of the early years of the NWA and their breakthrough album, Straight Outta Compton.

Originally published for FACT.

For some millennials, with limited knowledge of hip hop history, Dr Dre will always spring to mind as Eminem’s mentor, first and foremost; the ‘good guy’ sidekick – reigning Marshall Mathers in and moulding him into the global rapper who dominated the noughties.

But long before he was “locked in Em’s basement”, Dre was a founding member of the N.W.A – the late eighties/early nighties collective; credited with popularising West Coast hip hop and sub-genres.Taking its title from NWA’s seminal 1988 debut album, this biographical drama charts the legendary rap group’s meteoric rise and acrimonious fall. In the mid-1980s the streets of Compton were considered some of the most deprived in the USA. Five young men sprang from them to give angry voice to a voiceless part of society, igniting a musical revolution as they shot to global hip-hop domination. Straight Outta Compton, in theatres now, chronicles the group’s rise to fame, their subsequent troubles, and the character development of the group’s three most prominent artists; Dr Dre (played by Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Paul Giamatti) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr – Ice Cube’s son).

Known for their hatred of a corrupt US police system, the N.W.A were never far from controversy (frequently banned from mainstream radio) and their biopic follows suit. Recent weeks has seen many question just why Dr Dre, one of the film’s producers, decided to omit his history of violence towards women from Straight Outta Compton. “Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in my over head with no real structure in my life,” he stated in his apology regarding his omission. While Dre may have deemed his abusive past irrelevant to the film’s narrative, knowing his victims have very different memories of his early years of fame, it plays at the back of the viewer’s mind whilst watching – you can never be fully convinced by Hawkin’s portrayal of an airbrushed young Dre. Perhaps including the rapper’s beatings of a female journalist and former lovers would have disrupted the flow of the film; after all, the focus isn’t just on Dre’s story but on Eazy-E and Ice Cube’s tale too. Maybe. We’ll never know. But you can’t help feeling confused that the only scene involving Dre, violence and women is one in which he is the victim; being struck across the face by his mother early on in the film.

While Straight Outta Compton may have glossed over certain aspects of Dre’s personal history, it’s a brutally honest portrayal of the race tension of America throughout the late eighties. Twenty-five years on in England, where the loudest cries of ‘Fuck The Police’ can be heard from middle class white kids in suburban nightclubs, it’s sobering to be reminded just what inspired the N.W.A’s hits filled with such hatred towards the police force. Throughout the picture, the characters suffer police brutality and harassment for simply existing, and the most harrowing part of viewing those scenes is realising that little has changed since in America regarding law enforcement and people of colour; if anything, things have gotten worse.

Removing the external issues surrounding the biopic, and judging it solely as a film, Straight Outta Compton is a fast paced, at times humorous, tale of three talented kids, coming from nothing, to become world changing millionaires. Each protagonist has their own personal battle on their hands; Dre is conflicted on how to do what’s best for himself and his family, Ice Cube fights for creative credit and the financial rewards, and Eazy-E struggles with greed, and later, his losing battle with Aids.

The presence of Eazy-E’s widow, Ice Cube and Dr Dre’s involvement in production is evident throughout the film; with all three characters coasting through with few unredeemable flaws to their name; the blame for any dark scenarios being firmly placed on Suge Knight or the group’s manager, Jerry. As a film, Straight Outta Compton is an enjoyable and simple biopic, but you can’t help but wonder that it may not be the most honest retelling of the N.W.A’s formative years.

Straight Outta Compton is out now.

See also: Preview: Trainwreck