Reclaiming bodies: Straight Outta Compton

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There’s an ingratiating moment early in Straight Outta Compton: Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) coaching and coaxing Eazy-E into rapping the first line of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” without sounding flat. He can’t hit the crucial line “Cruisin’ down tha street in my ’64.” It isn’t just that he didn’t write it — he doesn’t feel it, according to Dre. But behind the mixing board, protected by glass, Dre knows — that writer Ice Cube should be rapping, that Eazy’s talent is minimal. But Dre understands: Eazy is the group’s soul and patron, the one whose drug money paid for the sessions. In F. Gary Gray’s movie about the rise and dissolution of the group that, after Guns n Roses, most scared the hell out of white parents, Compton holds the young men together, even when drugs, women, success, and the usual “Behind the Music” tropes interfere. The closer it hews to the biopic tradition, the more Straight Outta Compton lets the energy of its opening scenes dissipate.

With Cube and Dre listed in the producer credits and Gray a veteran of Cube’s Friday movies, Straight Outta Compton has the cohesion of a pre-nup agreement. The three N.W.A. stars get the spotlight. Winners only, please. When Cube leaves after realizing he’s being screwed out of his proper due as songwriter and performer by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, playing his second despicable manager this summer), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) assumes lyric responsibility on 1991’s EFIL4ZAGGIN and assures N.W.A.’s ignominious end. DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) utters a couple of ladykilling love-me-downs but is also ignored or overlooked. Gray’s direction thinks ambiguity’s for pussies. “I want the best for you,” Dre’s mom reminds him early in the picture. “I want the best for me too,” Dre snaps back. Dre’s first scene is an overhead shot of the young would-be producer lying on his back surrounded by Roy Ayers, Zapp, and Funkadelic LPs. Cube, grim with concentration, sits on a school bus with a composition notebook in which he writes — what else — lyrics. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., son of the real Cube, has a way of staring, mouth slightly agape, into a person’s face while in his head he’s rehearsing a series of zingers. The movie presents him as the careerist, hopping from solo albums to screenplays, a triumph of the will. If Straight Outta Compton has a villain, it’s Suge Knight, lord of Death Row Records, accompanied by sadists, bodyguards, sycophants, and killer dogs. Dre, now with a wife in tow, hooks up with Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records, thus finalizing the million-dollar marriage between the white-run entertainment complex and hip-hop; it was the nineties, era of unfathomable mergers during this apogee of neoliberalism. What are you gonna call this new label, Suge asks Dre when he wants out of his Death Row deal. The director cuts to a flattering close-up of Dre in a doorframe. “Aftermath.” Music surges.

Straight Outta Compton has too many exchanges like this. Except for the relaxed interplay between the guys before they record their 1988 breakthrough, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff can’t write dialogue that doesn’t consist of an expository point. Huddled by the side of a rest stop after learning that Dre’s beloved younger brother’s been killed, Easy says in a group hug that they’ll always be family; it’s there to serve as a dumb ironic foreshadowing of the, uh, aftermath four years later. “We got Michel’le, the DOC, and Above the Law!” Easy barks in a reminder to the audience of the Reckless Records lineup. “Think about pistols, not pussy!” goes another line. “Ren is as good a writer as Cube, maybe better,” Heller assures Easy (I expected to hear the “Meanwhile, back at Easy-E’s mansion” voice-over from “Challenge of the Superfriends”). Then the movie succumbs to the usual second and third act trouble with such enterprises (here we go, another Easy pool party, the cameras hip to catch every butt and breast shot). The relationship between Easy and Heller suggests filial ties that the movie isn’t ready to explore. Puzzlingly, the script and Gray also can’t handle the shading required for presenting a reprobate with an ear for spotting talent (Bone Thugs-n-Harmony get a token reference, so check them off the list). Straight Outta Compton gives Easy the spotlight to illuminate his quick, tearful death from AIDS, which leads to quick, tearful reconciliations with Dre and Cube.

But the audience is alive to Straight Outta Compton as it wouldn’t be for a better movie. When cops pat down the group outside the studio, it’s the black cop whose face crinkles disgust at the thought that rap is music, and the audience hissed; when Heller berates the cops for harassing N.W.A. because they’re black, the audience whooped (Heller might be another predatory manager but the movie suggests he genuinely loved N.W.A’s music and has a faint grasp of the guys’ anger; that’s the empathy to which Eazy responds). We know what’s coming: back in the studio, Cube growls, “I got something.” An obvious scene, necessary in a picture this formulaic, but the facile suspense it generates is worth it when “Fuck Da Police” blasts from the speakers. Straight Outta Compton had been building to these seconds, this song, and what critics said sounded exploitative and fantastical in 1988 now howled with the force of twenty-six years of broken promises, of assumptions untested, of lives held cheaply.

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of a moment in his development when “White America” ceased being an abstraction and turned into a “syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.” Too young for N.W.A’s peak years but just in time for the Dre-produced singles, I preferred Michel’le’s “No More Lies” and “We’re All in the Same Gang.” Twenty-five years later the period condemnations of the music evaporate. Cube and Dre knew that however horrific the scenarios and crushing the beats N.W.A. attempted to reclaim control of their own bodies — a consequence which has led to accusations that they turned control into power and violence. What I see in Straight Outta Compton, though, are Hollywood conventions reclaiming their bodies.

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