I’m horribly opposed to “entire career/life” biographical films, but, I love rap music. Thus, a film following the entire career of a rap band is a bit of moral quandary for me.
Biographical films, as a whole, don’t work for me. Too often, directors attempt to funnel the wild complexities of a human life into a story shaped mold, highlighting big, Hollywood-ready moments between an arbitrary start and stop point (usually a death). They turn the peaks and valleys of human emotion and experience into a flat, palatable film – more a chronicle of events, then an actual representation of the person on screen. F. Gary Gray falls into this trap in his two and half hour film about the rise, fall and general importance of Compton rap group, N.W.A. Though it starts strong, with a beautifully tense and violent scene featuring Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and a drug deal gone horribly wrong, with at times, graphic depictions of the struggles of growing up in Compton in the 1980s, the film quickly falls into the rote routines of films of this ilk. We watch Dre (Kevin Durant lookalike Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (Cube’s own son, and eerie likeness, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and MC Ren (the wide-eyed Aldis Hodges) slowly come together, slowly produce music we all know will be revolutionarily inspirational and then, with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in full phone-in “I’m the only person ever cast as a manager” mode) behind them, become, gasp, a rap group with the power to change the world. Parties are had, big houses and cars are purchased, and then, gasp again, success changes them, and we watch the group’s decline, and then, third gasp, their inevitable attempts at a reunion. It is, quite frankly, every music biography ever, but with a hip-hop soundtrack. It isn’t bad, F. Gary Gray manages to imbue it with a sort of raw energy that reflects the spirit of the group and the actors, though saddled with cliches and platitudes seemingly pulled from the biographical music film bible, ably bring, with some dalliances into imitation, their own takes on these rap legends. It hums along for a while, skating on the thin ice of nostalgic remembrance, but after a bit, once it becomes clear that this will be a film firmly playing in the sandbox of other films just like it, it sort of becomes a sodden trudge towards the inevitable, historical conclusion. It’s hard to say if this is the film’s fault or the film’s lackluster intention to chronicle instead of comment, but whatever it is, it relegates what could be great to merely fair.
The Lesson #1:
Aside from a bevy of boobs and sex (in a slice of scenes) this film is surprisingly un-gritty. I expected every scene to be filled with blunts and babes, but Gray seemed to check off a few boxes for “40s”, “blowjobs” and “weed” and then expected the rest of the film to maintain the texture of this notoriously hard-partying group. Let’s not stereotype our rap celebrities, but let’s at least show the reality of the situation.
The Lesson #2:
Gray balances a fine line here of chronicling the gratuitous spending, drug use and misogyny and glorifying it. Are we supposed to cringe when Ice Cube pushes a half-naked woman (just moments earlier giving head to Eazy-E) into a hallway and telling her to get the fuck out or cheer? My audience thought cheer. That’s a problem.