Straight Outta Compton is a biopic, with all of the attendant problems and pleasures that that entails. The film is also uniquely compromised by being actively produced and stewarded by its (living) subjects and families. Hell, one of the characters is played by that character’s actual, real life son. There is absolutely no editorial distance or critical evaluation in this adaptation. This is straight hagiography, and to an unknown extent, wish fulfillment.
There is also an unintentional air of sexual menace that the film exhibits towards its often nude, seldom-named female characters. The famously egregious “bye, Felicia” scene especially comes across as cruel, adolescent wish fulfilment. The scenes of debauchery and excess are played for either laughs or in wide-eyed admiration.
Once the film brings all of its characters together at the end of the first act, there’s a long sequence of NWA at the top of their game, interspersed with a few broad bits of foreshadowing. After that, the film breaks into three parallel stories: Ice Cube’s burgeoning solo and acting career (here summarized by Cube congratulating himself on Friday’s still-being-written screenplay), Dr. Dre’s move from Ruthless to Death Row, and his relationship with Suge Knight, and Eazy-E’s relationship with Jerry Heller. MC Ren and DJ Yella, here as in real life, are mostly background players.
I found Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti’s relationship in the film to be easily the most emotionally resonant thing in the film, and the most compromised, in a way that seems to speak to the problems with biopics generally, and this film in particular. Eazy-E is obviously dead, and Jerry Heller has been in litigation with the surviving members of NWA on and off for the last twenty-five years. To the extent of what we know about Eazy-E and Heller’s relationship, it is here filtered through the perception of people who are antagonistic towards Heller, and with a vested interest in making him look as bad as possible. Eazy-E himself is presented as young, vulnerable man who allowed a surrogate father figure to take advantage of him, and by extension his friends, the ones he should really have been looking out for.
And yet, mostly through the acting of Mitchell and Giamatti, I more or less bought the relationship. I don’t know that I believe it, in the sense that I don’t know the truth behind it, but by being dead, Eazy-E is allowed to be emotionally and narratively vulnerable in a way that Dre and Cube won’t allow their on-screen doppelgangers to be. Both move from strength to strength, with occasional violent outbursts to assert their masculine dominance over people who have wronged them.
The close involvement of the subjects obviously means that there will be little in the way of critical distance on the characters and their actions – the obvious lack of Dre’s assault of a journalist, even as it depicts him reacting in violent rage at several points, is indicative. But when the subject turns to someone who is no longer around to be concerned with how he’s depicted, we get a glimpse of what could have been a much richer film with more distanc