There’s no mystery about the US box office’s embrace of Straight Outta Compton, the story of the rise of West Coast gangsta rap. The country’s recent cases of police brutality prove that things haven’t changed much for young African-American men since the 1980s when their sense of outrage helped define the music they wanted to make and listen to.
The film was produced by two of the rappers at the centre of it all – Ice Cube and Dr Dre – plus Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eazy-E. Otherwise known as Eric Wright, E formed the company that gave their group, N.W.A., their first hit song, although song is not the word for rap. Part rant, part war chant, it combines with the group’s notorious love of a party to leave you feeling shell-shocked by the end of the film’s 150 minutes – which, I guess, means it has fulfilled its main purpose.
But it’s far from being a full and frank account. The script omits the incidents which recently caused Dr Dre to apologise for his treatment of some of the women who crossed him in his wilder days. And fellow pioneer MC Ren, who was not one of the film’s producers, has remarked ruefully that his part in the group’s success has been underplayed. Also dissatisfied is Dre’s former associate, Suge Knight, but he’s had to speak through his lawyer. He’s in prison, accused of crashing the set of a promotional spot being made for the movie and fatally injuring somebody with his car.
The film’s director, F. Gary Gray, is no stranger to the group’s milieu. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and has given its neighbourhoods the raw drama generated by its relentless turf. It’s a minefield but if a young rapper should venture into a white neighbourhood, his presence will act as a red flag to the LAPD’s roving patrols.
The script covers most of N.W.A’s milestones. There’s the police raid provoked by their decision to ignore a warning from the FBI and perform their protest track F…the Police at their 1989 Detroit concert. And there are the feuds that split the group over the machinations of their manager, Jerry Waller. He’s played by Paul Giamatti, fresh from his turn as Brian Wilson’s Svengali in Love and Mercy. This time, he comes equipped with a grey wig and an air of weary exasperation.
Women feature only as bit players, mostly without their clothes – although Lisa Renee Pitts scores in a couple of strong scenes artfully designed to show Dre’s respect for his mother, and it’s Tomica (Carra Patterson) who alerts Eazy-E to Waller’s unorthodox accounting practices. But basically, it’s a film fuelled by testosterone. It may put rap into a political context – and rightly so – but its relentless display of machismo makes it a profoundly depressing experience.