Biopics are a tricky thing. If you have a compelling story based on true events, then they can really be effective. But, if you have an actor portraying an icon it’s easy for that performance to appear as bad impersonation, distracting you from the journey. That’s not the case with Straight Outta Compton. The story of one of the first big rap groups N.W.A., pioneers of Gangster Rap, is not only surprisingly poignant, but it’s quality film making at a high-level. There are great performances across the board, and none of which feel like hokey imitations. Strong turns by the three leads, excellent direction, and a rebel heart at its core make this one of the best movies of the summer.
The film opens up on the streets of Compton where Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) flees a dope house from a deal gone bad as the LAPD raid the area with a tank. From there we jump right into meeting the rest of the crew. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is still living at home, lost in the melodies of his record collection during the day, club DJ by night. We see Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) being harassed by the police as he tries to walk home after school, and then we get a quick intro to DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) in one of the first sequences at a night club. The boys are all at a crossroads and with Dre and Cube already writing lyrics and putting them to beats they convince their friend Eazy-E to put some cash into recording some rhymes and the rest is history. As N.W.A is formed and the group gains local notoriety, manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) takes the group under his wing as an adviser and promoter, helping the crew from Compton catch fire across the country. There are tours, endless parties, and lot’s of fun moments through act two. But as the story goes, Cube leaves the group for a solo career due to contract issues with Jerry and in turn starts a domino effect that would eventually be the demise of N.W.A. Eazy and Cube are the most interesting characters, mainly due to Jackson and Mitchell’s nuanced performances. It usually goes without saying that Giamatti is good, but here he shows the needed discipline to not overact and he doesn’t ham it up too much when he doesn’t need to here with the story’s villain. Even the underwritten bit parts of Tupac and Snoop Dogg are excellent played by Marcc Rose and Keith Stanfield respectively. You can tell that R. Marcos Taylor had a hell of a good time chewing scenery with the evil incarnate that is his version of Suge Knight. I can’t say enough about the cast from top to bottom. They take you through the ups, the downs, the laughs, and the tears of a journey that is not only gripping, but inspirational too. Even though the move runs 147 minutes, you don’t realize it until that last half hour which seemed to drag a bit. There are some scenes that start to get convoluted in what is a well laid-out epic for the most part. These are sequences involving the money and contracts of the now defunct Ruthless Records and the newly formed Death Row. But that would be my one major criticism of the whole thing. Everything else worked for me with flying colors.
Director F. Gary Gray has added a lot of major films to his resume since he helmed the little-ghetto-comedy-that-could, Friday (Written by Ice Cube) in 1995, but Straight Outta Compton proves to be his best effort to date. The film, like N.W.A.’s music resonates now just like it did booming from your tape deck in the 80’s, and the timing of the film seems more appropriate than ever. The parallels of social injustice are eerie. The climate of civil unrest during the film with the Rodney King beating and L.A. Riots still echoes today as our nation is torn over the controversial events of Ferguson and other black communities. This story that Gray and company tells helps to keep the flames burning atop the torch of free speech and social justice. The best part about it, is that the film re-ignites that flame by telling N.W.A.’s story fashioned as an explosive Molotov Cocktail coming straight at the establishment. Eazy wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.