Even you don’t know anything about rap music, you might remember — if you’re old enough — all the late-80s national handwringing in the U.S. over the N.W.A. song “Fuck tha Police.” It’s an angry, incendiary piece of work, and whatever you may have thought about it at the time, or even still to this day, Straight Outta Compton will bring you completely to the side of the young black men who wrote and performed that song, much to the consternation of cultural watchdogs and scared white people. In this biopic of the group, director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Be Cool) ensures we understand exactly why young men like Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins: Non-Stop), and O’Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., the rapper’s own son, who could almost be his clone) are so justifiably enraged. Here we witness the outrageous abuses of the LAPD, who presume that everyone from their poor, violent Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton is a drug dealer or a gangbanger or both… and they will get your blood boiling. “I was literally just standing there,” Dre says with exasperation by way of explanation for his arrest on one occasion, and that really is all he was doing. (Alas that we know all too well that not much has changed in the past 30 years; black men in America still live in a police state.)
The seething rage that radiates from Compton elevates this above the many similar movies we’ve seen before. The guys are the familiar misunderstood visionaries of the genre, rule-breakers and risk-takers who made a new art form their own, spread the gospel of it, and eventually got taken for a ride by a fraudster of a manager (Paul Giamatti: San Andreas, Madame Bovary). But their entrepreneurial spirit is strong — “If you can sling drugs, you can sling records” is how Dre brings his dealer friend Eazy-E into the fold — and their passion is engaging: the young cast, especially Jason Mitchell (Contraband) as Eazy-E, is absolutely superb.
But that rage is truncated onscreen in ways that are hard to ignore. As you may have heard, music journalist Dee Barnes has been speaking out about how Dr. Dre’s propensity for violence against women has been completely excised from the film — which it has indeed — including a vicious 1991 physical assault on her because he didn’t like how she’d covered the group on the TV show she hosted. (This isn’t an allegation; he pleaded no contest and settled a civil suit out of court.) It’s not as if Compton pretends these guys were saints: issues among them and competitions with rivals go from insults to violence in a heartbeat; testosterone rules them all. Women barely even exist in this story, and that’s nothing new either. But Compton makes a particular point about power differentials being abused as a wellspring of perfectly justifiable angry, and not just with the LAPD wielding its authority like a weapon. Producer Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor: Life of Crime), who starts out an ally of Dre and N.W.A., starts to shift, in the eyes of the movie and the other characters, to villainy when he begins to punch down, literally, as when he beats up a guy, just some regular schmoe passerby, merely for taking his parking space. (Men behaving badly is treated much more neutrally by the film when it occurs among relative equals, and approvingly when it punches up, as when Cube, carrying a baseball bat, visits the office of a white record exec [Tate Ellington: Sinister 2, Remember Me] to demand money he’s owed.)
We never see Dre punching down. We never see him having to deal with the ramifications of his anger getting out of control and hurting people instead of being channeled into his art. (The film ignores the blatant misogyny of N.W.A.’s music, too.) For a film that is overtly about getting us to understand that these men are so very angry because they lack power in an unjust world, it is an especial fault to pretend that those men don’t also punch down out of fear or misunderstanding or their own misdirected rage. Depicting Dre and the others as flawed human beings would not detract from the power of the impact their music has had. But the Straight Outta Compton we got — on which Dre and Cube served as producers — suggests that they are not as willing to hear the truth and face reality, no matter how ugly, when they are on the receiving end of it.