“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” begins N.W.A’s hard-hitting, largely self-funded, and strikingly relevant biopic Straight Outta Compton, released in theaters across the U.S. on August 14. The first lines of the film are taken from the beginning of N.W.A’s (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton, and serve as a fitting introduction to the story of three young disadvantaged black men (founding members Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube), who turned the rampant gang violence and police brutality of their hometown into the most powerful and defiant hip-hop album the genre had ever produced. Eazy-E, played by Jason Mitchell, is the drug dealer with a mind for business; Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins, is the talented DJ with an unquenchable obsession for music; and Ice Cube, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., is the poet who writes the group’s incendiary “reality rap” lyrics about the violence happening outside his front door.
While the movie does a great job of capturing the conditions that inspired N.W.A’s music, the plot sacrifices depth for breadth. The plot is weighed down by the sheer amount of characters it tries to develop, and the volume of events it tries to capture in a measly two and a half hours, resulting in only a surface-level portrayal of each character’s personality and personal life.
The tone of Straight Outta Compton reaches infuriating heights whenever any of the characters are forced to interact with the police. At one point, police arrest Ice Cube for walking out his door while another arrest occurs on the sidewalk out front, for the crime of being young, black, and present.
Even more shocking is the opening scene, when Eazy-E makes a frantic escape from a trap house being swarmed by the LAPD, who make their entrance via a battering ram attached to a tank that rips apart the structure’s entire front wall. He collides head-on with a woman in the front room with ferocious force. Despite their heavy-handed, militarized tactics, the law is never brought down on the LAPD, even when they violate the main characters’ basic constitutional rights with untenable hubris.
Straight Outta Compton’s seething depictions of the group’s experiences with police brutality casts a different light on N.W.A.’s music than the traditional media narrative of glorifying crime and gang violence. Instead, the provocative, anti-law enforcement lyrics are shown as a bold rebellion against oppressive tyranny, as action more justified than the police force used against them. However, the film is not too serious, and the filmmakers include plenty of lighthearted scenes between friends, groupies, and, of course, the rappers themselves to lighten the mood.
Despite the film’s strong beginning, Straight Outta Compton’s plot suffers from a lack of focus as the movie progresses. When Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube go their separate ways, the film tries to follow each of their separate lives and career moves. The result is a series of boring, surface-level scenes usually involving contractual disputes and cameos from famous rappers, essentially trudging through the less interesting side of N.W.A.’s career with arbitrary facts. This flaw is common in many music biopics, since a musician’s origins and rise to fame are usually far more interesting and exciting than dealing with post-fame money problems. Even important events, such as the Rodney King riots, are glossed over with little context or room for reflection.
Yet, Straight Outta Compton is still a triumph because it shows a different side of the often vilified N.W.A., whose records were controversial because they were inexorably honest about the realities of police brutality in Los Angeles. As expected, the music is on point, and the characters’ antics are wild, but more importantly, the power of N.W.A’s street knowledge booms out of our speakers loud and clear once again.