If there was ever any mystery as to who produced Straight Outta Compton, it’s completely solved by the time we get to the scene where we see Ice Cube sitting in front of his Dell-era desktop, writing the screenplay for Friday. “You got knocked da f*ck out’,” Cube, played by his son, mutters to himself while typing.
“Damn, this is funny,” Cube says, out loud, to no one in particular, apparently shocked by his own comedic genius.
Yep, that really happens. There’s also a callback to “bye, Felicia!” (during a scene featuring naked groupie BJs for some reason), and an Ice Cube’s Greatest Career Triumphs montage playing over the closing credits. That the movie also depicts Cube as a stand-up family man, a lyrical prodigy, and a take-no-sh*t contract negotiator who was never fooled by that shady operator Jerry Heller should come as no surprise either. There’s another scene where Ice Cube tells some gotcha journalist to eat a dick, and you’re all, “yeah!” because the interviewer was being a racist jerk and totally deserved it. The period when NWA split up and released diss tracks about each other? The crew may have been pissed at Cube, but they always secretly respected him. He was just so undeniably talented. When they finally squashed the beef, it was because Eazy just had to give Cube props on his career. Tough but fair, that Ice Cube. Turns out he was right all along.
This may have been the way things actually went down, by the way. That’s the beauty of Straight Outta Compton, we don’t really know. It could be that Ice Cube writing Friday on his Dell really was an important milestone in the history of NWA, and the fact that Straight Outta Compton was co-produced by Ice Cube, stars Ice Cube’s son, and was directed by the director of Ice Cube’s Friday (F. Gary Gray) could just be coincidence. They say history is written by the winners, and Straight Outta Compton certainly isn’t the Howard Zinn version.
I’ll watch the Howard Zinn version when they make it, by the way (produced by Jerry Heller, Suge Knight, DJ Yella and whoever Felicia is), but will it be as entertaining as Straight Outta Compton? Probably not. A slick biopic needs heroes, and Cube is definitely foremost in this version of the NWA story. It’s entirely self-serving, but seems just true enough that you can believe maybe it really was just like that.
Here’s a perfect example: They cast Ice Cube’s son as Ice Cube. Seems like a reasonable decision, right? What could be more faithful than that? And yet, in doing so, Cube cleverly, accidentally, maybe just by convenient coincidence, has rewritten his own history in such a way that he instantly becomes half a foot taller.
So when Straight Outta Compton Cube is coming face to face with Straight Outta Compton Suge Knight, and they’re eye-to-eye — you know it couldn’t have really happened that way, because in real life Ice Cube is 5-foot-8 and Suge Knight is a former UNLV defensive end, and yet you can’t be entirely convinced this was deliberate. Maybe Ice Cube is the Mussolini of ’90s rap stars or maybe casting his son just made sense (he does do a pretty good job).
A similar thing happens when you watch the NWA crew (minus Cube, at that point) listen to almost the entirety of Ice Cube’s anti-Jerry Heller, anti-NWA at that time diss track, “No Vaseline” (complete with shots of them all being blown away by Cube’s incendiary raps). You wonder why the same film doesn’t so much as mention Eazy E’s famous Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg diss track “Real Muthaphuckkin Gs.” Was it a deliberate omission? Did they just not have the rights? Were they trying to avoid any reference to Dr. Dre’s domestic violence?
Who knows? Who cares? There are a lot of ways you can read individual story decisions in Straight Outta Compton, and theorize about the fact that they all magically seem to add up to Cube and Dre looking like good-guy heroes (there’s even a Beats By Dre commercial in the closing credits, I swear to God), but the bottom line is, you’re wrapped up in the drama. It’s impossible not to be. Most of us will forgive just about any sin of embellishment or omission to relive the birth of “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” “F*ck tha Police,” and “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s perfect nostalgia porn (especially for those of us who grew up in California — ha, suck it, New York, with your stupid Yankees gear and your bullsh*t wannabe LL Cool J Kangol hats!) and has the added benefit of giving retroactive context for us initially terrified whiteys. “Oh, so they were just a product of their environment? At first all that anger seemed scary, but now it makes sense!”
Straight Outta Compton goes goofy and melodramatic and silly in all sorts of ways (my audience laughed at a couple overdone “sad” parts), but this is destined to be the kind of movie I stop to watch every time it’s on cable (8 Mile is the same way). I’ll feel slightly guilty, because it’s cheese, but not that guilty, because it’s really good cheese. Yeah, I got goosebumps when Eazy E (played beautifully by Jason Mitchell) hit that first line of “Boyz-n-the-Hood.”
As shameless an Ice Cube puff piece Straight Outta Compton is (and slightly less so pro-Dre and Eazy E — the film was produced by Cube, Dre, and Eazy E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright), it’s surprisingly not vindictive toward its villains. Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, who helped Eazy E start Ruthless Records and is largely credited with driving a wedge between the NWA members who stayed with him and the ones who thought he was screwing them and left (Cube being the first). Whereas I expected Giamatti to be in full Pig Vomit mode here, his Heller is fairly sympathetic. His advice is well-meaning and only occasionally patronizing. He comes off fairly pathetic by the end, but Gray and his screenwriters leave it at least slightly ambiguous as to whether Heller really was screwing everyone or if it was partly that they were just so used to getting taken advantage of that they could never trust him.
Of course, that could just be part of Ice Cube’s genius, letting us come to his conclusion about Heller without feeling like he was pushing us there. Either way, it works. It was also refreshing to see Straight Outta Compton do some of what I’ve always advocated in biopics – use period footage from the time in addition to the recreations. Compton isn’t exactly American Splendor, but in Selma and now this, we’re getting little glimpses of what filmmakers can do once they realize modern audiences don’t have a problem wrapping their minds around footage of actual people juxtaposed with actors playing those people. It’s alright, we’ll get it. Straight Outta Compton does it in a self-referential, winky kind of way, with Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s son) watching old footage of “himself” in the real “Straight Outta Compton” video, while his movie wife says “Look how young you look!” but hey, it’s a start.
What else can I say about Straight Outta Compton? It’s certainly the Ice Cube/Dr. Dre version of the story, but it’s well done enough that you don’t mind. And it made me realize that I’d probably watch at least two other versions of the same story.
Keep that memoir warm, Jerry Heller.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.