It’s been more than twenty years since N.W.A. revolutionized music with the introduction of gangsta rap back in the late 80s and despite more than two decades of progress, the band’s history remains as crucial as ever. These rappers are remembered for their thuggish tactics, relentlessly angry lyrics, and none too subtle hatred for authority figures. They’ve since gone on to make their millions and have inspired entire generations of artists to use their voices to call out social injustice. Straight Outta Compton aims to be a biopic portraying the rise, fall, and legacy of the band as they fight society, record labels, and even their own peers to succeed. The boys from Compton have something to say, but twenty-five years later; does it still merit a trip to the theater.
The movie introduces us to the drug peddler Easy-E(Jason Mitchell), the unemployed yet aspiring artist Dr. Dre(Corey Hawkins), and the wise cracking high schooler Cube(O’Shea Jackson Jr.) as they come together to form the band that would go on to become N.W.A. After Dre convinces Easy-E to use his drug money to invest in a sound studio and the band gets some local exposure, they are approached by up and coming manager, Jerry Heller(Paul Giamatti). Jerry gets N.W.A. off the ground and the gang quickly records their first album before going on tour. The film goes on to cover the band’s battle with racism, greed, and eventually betrayal in their rise to fame and success.
In the truest spirit of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton takes no prisoners in what it’s trying to say. Their story is one painted with violence, back stabbings, and prejudice. These people aren’t heroes and their ambitions are hardly pure, but what’s striking about the film is its honesty in portraying their mission to call out the injustice of the system they were forced to adhere to. Even when directly threatened by the police in Detroit, these guys couldn’t help but sticking it to the powers that be. Their greatest strength was their passion for sharing their experiences in Compton with the world. These weren’t small town musicians who were leaving their world behind, but rather they were bringing the Compton experience to the masses.
Amidst their tale of fame and glory, their is an underlying plot line highlighting the problems with police brutality and racism in America and it climaxes in the film’s third act when the four LA policemen are acquitted for charges of excessive force against Rodney King. In the wake of last year’s ruling and the riots following the Michael Brown case, this movie works as a shocking and heartbreaking reminder that despite more than twenty years of progress we’re still doing the same ol’ song and dance.
The state of politics on the controversy is as sensitive as ever and Straight Outta Compton could easily be skewed as a cash-in on the recent tragedies, but ultimately the movie handles the conversation eloquently by drawing parallels without becoming too overtly heavy handed. And to nobody’s surprise, the voice of N.W.A.’s “F*ck the Police” is still as relevant to the voices of millions around the country as it was when the song broke in 1988.
Aside from the taking no prisoners in its handling of controversy, this movie works as a powerful biopic about a ragtag group of deeply flawed artists driven to get their message out in hopes of making a personal fortune along the way. When they aren’t throwing parties full of women, drugs, and rap battles, they’re fighting with each over who has rights to what. There are undoubtably a number of details left out, but the movie doesn’t shy away from the brutal tactics of Suge Knight or Easy-E’s arrogance and unwillingness to pay the rest of the band their dues. For the N.W.A. unsullied, this is key to grounding these characters in reality and avoiding the biopic style of mythologizing its main players.
The movie has a strong start and continues the momentum in the second act, but once the band breaks up everyone goes their own way, the film gets a little bit too sprawling with very little through-line to tie it all together. The final act loses its center and progresses aimlessly for the last half an houe. The lack of focus in Compton’s home stretch is its biggest problem that robs the film of being a truly great American film.
The cast of this movie blows each role completely out of the water. It’s an unknown cast with the exception of Ice Cube’s son O’ Shea Jackson Jr who knocks it out of the park .Fans will find the mannerisms of each member to be spot on. Paul Giamatti also delivers his finest sleezy producer performance we’ve seen in a good minute while Jason Mitchell brings sympathy to Easy-E who should in all reality be the least likable character of the cast.
Director F. Gary Gray has had more than his share of flops over the last several years, but Straight Outta Compton is delivered with an undeniable confidence, passion, and sense of purpose. This film is angry and often seems relentless, but it never forgets to sit back and have a great time. The movie is at its strongest when these characters are left in a room together with their own devices.
Straight Outta Compton is a biopic unlike any I’ve seen in recent years. It doesn’t adhere’s to the traditional biopic tropes or formulas and it never forgets the importance of what brought the group together in the first place. For all of their anger and absurd antics, N.W.A. believed in calling out corrupt authority and inspiring people to challenge the higher powers via their art. It may overindulge and stumble to find a purpose in its final act, but the passion and quality performances make this more than worth the trip the the movies.