You don’t have to like rap music to enjoy F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton. While an aversion to the genre might have some kind of sway on your initial choice of whether or not you should endeavour to see this film the movie, which stars an ensemble of incredible talent, isn’t just about the notorious N.W.A group. It’s about race, violence, society, and the somewhat corrupt music industry told through the lens of Gray from the perspective of three men who helped to shape rap. What those audience members didn’t previously know – at least in such intricate detail – was the impact that Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young, Ice Cube (and in fact the whole of N.W.A) had on how the rest of the world saw the treatment of lower-class America in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Their songs contained profanity and explored themes of police brutality, they were met with hesitation from authorities and threats from the FBI, but N.W.A lifted the lid on life in Compton and gave others a voice, too; this is why Straight Outta Compton is so important.
The film begins pre super-stardom, set in Compton where if you’re black and stood on a corner of a street you’ll (apparently) be arrested for gang-banging. The opinion the feature has of police is clearly a negative one, but, as you discover as a spectator, rightly so. The first half or so is focused on creating a clear divide between N.W.A and the law, which stems from before Ice Cube penned the now infamous track Fuck Tha Police. You quickly get on-board with the foul-mouthed song as you learn that Ice Cube, Dre and many, many more young black men were the subject of racial police prejudice. The political side of Gray’s film is prominent, but not extreme as it hovers in the background when appropriate with writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff aware of possibly alienating audiences. The script is sensational; Insightful, emotional, and surprisingly witty, Herman and Berloff provided Straight Outta Compton with a screenplay that, had it landed in the wrong hands, could of been delivered ignorant and uninteresting. Even the 147 minute run-time isn’t an issue with Gray taking his time to carefully explore all angles of the life of N.W.A from the viewpoint of all three main hitters. With enough revelations to keep its audience pleased and a perfect fusion of life as a musician to life as a friend, son and husband, the feature is one of the best biopics of the last ten years. Who woulda’ thunk it?
The score speaks for itself, too. With non-diegetic music from the likes of Funkadelic and Parliment that produce 80’s nostalgia in the early moments of the feature; and live-music scenes recreated to perfection that create this sense of total awe; to Snoop Dogg coming in on Nuthin’ but a G Thang for the first time – it’s these individual junctures that ignite delight among the watching audience who were drawn in for the music legend. The actors who play the N.W.A founders: Jason Mitchel as Eazy, Ice Cube’s own son O’Shea Jackson and Corey Hawkins as Dre, deserve undeniable acclaim. The chemistry between the trio is brimming with brotherhood in the early years and charged when the lawsuit years begin, with not a music-biopic cliche insight. Eyes are opened wide when it comes to Eazy E as you walk away with Mitchel’s performance firmly in mind and Jackson is a complete revelation, channeling raw anger alongside this streak of sensibility – expect to see his career blow-up.
When the feature was initially released there was this slight controversy around the brushing over of certain behaviour, mainly towards the treatment of women. Most critics agreed this was a detail that is totally unpleasant but that if you watch the film and truly believe these young rappers were innocent you’re highly misguided. Straight Outta Compton is first and foremost about the birth of talented musicians and the rise (and fall) of those, and while every moment in those 10 or so years isn’t seen on-screen, the director and his producers (Dre, Cube and Tomica Woods-Wright) don’t shy away from the more shocking aspects of life as an N.W.A member. From hotel orgies and an arsenal of guns on a tour bus, to gang-bangers responsible for family deaths and Suge Knight’s psychotic behaviour at Death Row Records (Which Dre apparently overlooked for some time), this isn’t a rose-tinted overview of rap super-stardom. If anything, this is a tale that constantly reminds viewers (as if the title wasn’t enough) that Wright, Young and Cube didn’t forget their heritage and the effect of Compton on young men. The feature isn’t flawless and clearly not entirely accurate, but Gray attentively portrays key events with such thought, including Eazy E’s death and the Rodney King trial – all of the while with Compton roots in mind.
Straight Outta Compton could of become a completely fallacious biopic were Dre and Cube not attached to the making of it. Gray directs with ease and a visual edge that depicts the changing of decades appropriately while an intelligent and Oscar-worthy screenplay and an ensemble who not only look like the real deal but clearly studied their characters to the highest extent possible support him. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, and their story of revolutionary rap music is done total justice.