Music is already a genre that thrives on its ability to strike at the emotions of its audience. Songs are born of emotion, letting it fill every beat, rhythm and rhyme. Films have been leveraging the power music can hold to elevate scenes for years. Music was used as an instrument to make films better even before words were spoken. Every now and then a film comes along that attempts to put music on display. Attempting to capture the raw emotion it instills in listeners. Straight Outta Compton is one of those movies and accomplishes this goal with the same attitude and power its protagonist N.W.A. performed with. It is an uncompromising and inspired piece of film making that is almost eerily timed with the actual heartbeat of today’s society. Which is extra potent if you take a moment to consider the titular album that this movie is named after was released 27 years ago.
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise of the “N.W.A.” who was then dubbed “The World’s Most Dangerous Group”. Following the legends of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, Andre “Dr Dre” Romelle, and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson. Eazy-E ( Jason Mitchell ), a drug dealer, is considering what his next steps will be. Fully aware of how his lifestyle as a drug dealer has a better than likely chance of having a bad ending. Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), an aspiring DJ, is desperately struggling to make ends meats with his music. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a hip hop poet, just trying to navigate living in Compton. Eazy-E decides to use the money earned from dealing drugs to financially back the would be group. Dr Dre would soon add some additional local talent including MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella ( Neil Brown Jr. ) and N.W.A. was born.
Brandishing a hard and violent message that reflects the environment they called home. N.W.A became the personification of a rebellious movement fueled by the harsh realities of people living in Compton and other urban ghettos across the country. A reality that so many people lived in and somehow so little people actually knew or cared about. N.W.A. soon found themselves in the limelight. That limelight lead to millions of records being sold, and the fame and fortune associated with such accomplishments. This fame didn’t come without a price, as N.W.A. soon found themselves targeted by the same establishments they rapped about. Which only really scratches at the surface of all the issues this group would soon find themselves in the midst of. As with most stories of young artist thrust-ed into success seemingly overnight. Things like egos, money, and pride all become a piece that ultimately push the original trio in different life paths and directions.
Eazy-E is also nicknamed the “Godfather of Gangsta rap”. Which is very fitting as this biopic comes off as an origin tale of the central rapper of the group. This supplies the film with a grit and realism that audiences came to see the film for. Hardcore fans of the group will expect nothing less, and people learning about NWA for the first time will need to know why this group were who they were. The film does not pull any punches with its depiction of poverty, and the explosive tension between the youth of Compton and the LAPD. The film chooses scenes that relieve the audience’s need of being a historian of that time period. Grounding that tension in a few key scenes and encounters is all you need to get the gist of the situation. A situation that fuels the arc of the creation of one of the groups most controversial records “Fuck Tha Police“.
It succeeds at how it presents the material. Sometimes, Straight Outta Compton feels like a glorified music video. Exposition presented through music with plenty of the glamour on display often associated with Hip Hop and Rap : jewelry, cars, and scantily clad woman. It also manages to weave some real world conflicts to emphasize the emotions of the times. Taking a small amount of time to highlight the LA riots, which were incited by the non guilty verdict of officers indited for the beating of Rodney King. Moments like this really give the film some emotional weight. Things didn’t change because of the music, the world kept spinning as they always known it to. With everything going for it, Straight Outta Compton isn’t without its issues. Most biopics have the issue of compressing a single persons life in the time span of a film. Straight Outta Compton multiplies that issue by three and as a result at times seems jumpy. It also becomes an issue of focus as the beginning of the film feels like Eazy-E’s show. The first half is amazingly tense fulfilling and towards the end starts running out of fuel. It ultimately ends as a biography for Dr Dre, and Ice Cube almost becomes a secondary character by the end of it all.
The most surprising part of the film to me was undoubtedly the acting performances of the cast. Mitchell does most of the heavy lifting as Eazy-E and is down right incredible. It would have been easy and ultimately unsatisfying for someone to just phone it in and rely on “gangsta bravado” for the character of Eazy-E. Instead we get a very warm and dare I say heartbreaking portrayal of one of the most controversial figures in rap music. O’Shea Jr. is the actual biological son of Ice Cube. Going into the film, this role had me the most worried because the young actor has practically zero acting credits/experience. However, to my surprise my worries were put to rest by an equally strong performance. Hawkins is the weakest of the three, but I also think it’s the best he could have done. While the characters of Eazy-E and Ice Cube are filled with more substances, going through more dark areas of their past. Dr Dre’s arc in the movie is held a little bit above water. You could certainly argue his story is kept the cleanest as people who remember will tell you. His story is filled with its fair share of infamy as well. Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, who was NWA’s manager. His performance is well done, and he even managed to sneak in the typical Giamatti freak out. R. Marcos Taylor is a serious scene stealer, portraying the villainous CEO of Death Row Records Suge Knight. The synergy is apparent, which makes watching all the characters interact a real treat. Some other guest appearances make an impact as well, with right on targets of Snoop Dogg and Tupac by Keith Stanfield and Marcc Rose.
If you’re a fan or not of N.W.A or rap music in general. There is still plenty to see and admire in this picture. It’s a powerful character drama that puts a world on display that still rings true some 30 years later.