★★★½ / 👍
Ninety minutes of amazing filmmaking, followed by an hour of self-aggrandizing “and then I wrote” corporate propaganda from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
As someone who spent part of his teen years as a semi-libertarian freeze peach advocate with very thin skin, I winced in identification during the scene in Straight Outta Compton when Paul Giamatti’s character loses his shit the second he finds himself on the wrong end of a barbed lyric. I’m an East Coast white-boy tourist whose lived experience was that of The Tompkins Square Park Riot, not the Los Angeles riots. I never got much deeper into hip-hop than some old-school beats and half of the Def Jam catalog before The Chronic scared me away, and not even Illmatic could bring me back. The closest I’ve ever been to a rap controversy was that one time I got into an argument with a Tower Records clerk about how dumb it was that you couldn’t buy an uncensored version of the Romeo Must Die soundtrack.
With all that said, I loved this movie, until I didn’t. I walked out of the theater wanting to see it again immediately, but I really don’t know if it’ll hold up. The hagiography of Dr. Dre in particular rings very false, although it probably isn’t that much worse than the omissions and whitewashing in other musical biopics like Ray or Walk The Line.
The performances are uniformly strong. Jason Mitchell is the standout as Eazy-E, providing layers to what could have been a caricature as the self-destructive frontman who loses sight of what’s really important. Corey Hawkins shows chops while shouldering the burden of the worst of the script’s cheap sentiment. O’Shea Jackson Jr. shows talent and charisma that goes beyond his resemblance to his father. Aldis Hodge gets a well-deserved straight dramatic role as MC Ren, albeit a thankless one; he’s Johnny Exposition, feeding setup lines for the flashier characters to drive home. Paul Giamatti sells the manipulative manager stereotype, conveying his own particular brand of hunger—that of a man who had relevance and lost it—while making it ambiguous as to how much of his self-justifying spiel he’s actually come to believe.
Which, come to think of it, is basically my one problem with this movie overall. Are Dre and Cube, as producers, simply giving the audience what it wants to see, or do they genuinely think this is a fully accurate depiction of their lives? There’s a telling scene where Ice Cube deflects criticism of his lyrics by claiming the “brutal honesty” of a journalist. The power of N.W.A.’s music was rooted in “the strength of street knowledge,” but a whole lot of this movie feels like Hollywood bullshit.