When it comes to what people know as “pop-culture,” there are seminal events that cause dramatic shifts in any given genre. Film was never the same after Jaws and Star Wars, just like hip-hop and rap were never the same after groups such as Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A set a new standard. The film, Straight Outta Compton, by director F. Gary Gray focuses on the latter, telling the story of N.W.A.’s humble beginnings, its rapid rise to prominence, and the drama and infighting that led to its eventual dissolution.
Though the film features a large, talented cast, the majority of its story centers upon N.W.A. members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E. Starting from their last days of high school, the film quickly establishes the world in which these young men live. Their hometown of Compton, located in southern Los Angeles, is one of violence and intimidation, from both gangs and the police. They use music as their outlet of expression, shaping their frustration and anger into songs that they hope will show listeners a sampling of their reality. Dr.Dre, played by Julliard graduate Corey Hawkins (Non-Stop), is their musical heart, creating the beats upon which Ice Cube, played by newcomer O’Shea Jackson Jr. (the real Ice Cube’s actual son), lays his clever rhymes. Yet, at the onset, they are without the money to fund a label. This money comes from their friend, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (played by the incredible Jason Mitchell; Contraband, Texas Killing Fields), a local drug dealer who aspires to more. With Eazy-E’s funding and the support of friends, MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge; Leverage) and DJ Yella (played by Neil Brown Jr.; Fast & Furious, Battle Los Angeles), N.W.A. is born. After the hit release of their first single, they attract the attention of Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti. Heller, a business-savvy music manager, helps push the group into the public sphere, bringing them more attention and more scrutiny as their popularity soars.
What follows is a hip-hop epic that hits all the beats of a successful music biopic, while also managing to stay engaging and original. Like many of these stories, Straight Outta Compton shows the members of the group experience the many temptations that come with success, indulge in the excesses that fame and wealth afford, and become victims of clashing egos and deceit. Where the story differs is the subject matter. Most musical biopics are relatively self-contained, whereas N.W.A.’s story is about how they channeled their creativity to comment on the world around them. Their music was completely reactionary; their commitment to “reality rap” over the more pop-based rap of the time pushed them into the national spotlight, drawing both praise and condemnation due to the often violent and vulgar nature of their songs’ lyrics. This interplay between N.W.A., its music, and different segments of society (some of whom supported their music and others who loathed it) make for a truly compelling experience that is as interesting as it is educational.
On the performance side, the main trio is impressive throughout. Corey Hawkin’s Dr. Dre is a relatable creative spirit, cognizant of the importance of his pursuit and possessed with a true vision for his music’s future, but he is often too trusting, too fast. O’Shea Jackson Jr. captures the spirit of his father perfectly, putting in a performance that is as impressive as it is eerie in its similarity to the real Ice Cube, who comes off as a no-nonsense creator determined to get his in an unfair artistic world. However, it is arguable that Jason Mitchell’s Eazy-E is the heart of the film. His character experiences the most complete arc; unfortunately this is because Eric Wright passed away due to complications with AIDS in 1995. However, Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E is stellar throughout. Eazy-E’s struggle to navigate the world of the music business while resisting his urges to deal with problems in a violent manner feels very realistic; never overblown or overtly fictionalized. He’s a man that, like his fellow bandmates, wants to rise above the poverty and violence that is endemic within his hometown. The last days of Eazy-E’s life are especially affecting and make for the film’s most emotional and dramatically satisfying moments.
This being said, what also elevates Straight Outta Compton is its grit and commitment to a story with fully-realized characters. These men, while our protagonists, are not always portrayed in a positive light. They’re often quick to anger and combative, among other things, but this only makes the events portrayed more believable and well-rounded. Also, it is refreshing to see a biopic focused on more than one person, where the main struggle is not drug addiction or depression, but rather interpersonal conflict.
On the more technical side, F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) impresses with inspired direction that manages to create distinct periods within N.W.A.’s career. His energetic direction, along with the eye of cinematographer Matthew Labitque (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan), creates a visually striking film that strives to portray a palpable reality rather than a fictitious reimagining of a past time period. Gray’s involvement and commitment to the film is made even more impressive knowing that he was originally offered the opportunity to direct Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and turned it down in order to direct this film.
Musically, the film is predictably excellent. As a person who has not listened to much rap music in their lifetime, I was constantly surprised and entertained by the film’s musical selections, enjoying how each highlighted a particular time in the history of the group and hip hop as a whole. From “Boyz-N-The Hood,” to “Dopeman,” to the titular, “Straight Outta Compton,” and the anthemic, “F— Tha Police” that garnered N.W.A. the title of World’s Most Dangerous Group, each song spotlighted is part of an entertaining survey of the rap music that would shape the genre for over two decades to come, even moving beyond the span of N.W.A.’s career to the solo careers of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and those whose careers they fostered, such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac.
In the end, Straight Outta Compton is an engaging, educational, and thought-provoking experience. It is a masterful biopic that both excites and illuminates, and it is definitely worthy of any Oscar attention it receives as one of the most striking and memorable dramas of the year.