It’s not every day that a movie comes around which completely changes your perspective about its subjects, the lifestyle, and its deep-seeded culture. Rich in history, Straight Outta Compton tells both the glamorous and ugly side of fame, living in the ghetto, the music industry, and historic events that shook America at its core to form the genesis of Gansta Rap or more accurately “Reality Rap” and the start of a nationwide revolution.
Straight Outta Compton opens with a high intense bang, much like life in Compton, L.A. during the height of the drug epidemic and street gangs in the 80’s; as a teenager experiences a drug payment gone terribly wrong. This is Eazy-E and just like Jason Mitchell, the actor portraying him, he is a force to be reckoned who will see his future capitulated to new heights.
N.W.A or Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes, was born from the streets of Compton, California, led by Eazy-E, rapping genius Ice Cube and producer/performer Dr. Dre; along with DJ Yella and MC Ren rounding out the “gang.”
While at the surface this is a music bio-pic about the rise, trials and tribulations of N.W.A., if you look deeper, it’s so much more; just like the group’s powerful lyrics. Shrouded in poverty, gang violence, and exhausting harassment from the police; N.W.A. was a breath of fresh air to the industry, speaking volumes about America’s views towards African-Americans. Unafraid to rap about their reality unlike their rapping forefathers, this resulted in them becoming a social-political voice during the Bush Era and L.A. Riots, making friends and enemies along the way. Either way, people started taking notice, including young upper class Caucasians, the FBI, and the White House, thus deeming them “The World’s Most Dangerous Group.”
Led by Jerry Hellar, a questionable veteran manager, the first half of the film focuses on the group harnessing their talents (there’s a hilarious scene where Dr. Dre teaches Eazy-E how to rap Cruisin’ In My 64’), their sudden rise to fame under Eazy-E’s record label Ruthless Records, and the group’s undoing by jealousy, money-issues, fighting, and departures of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre which culminates in the epic diss song No Vaseline by Ice Cube directed towards N.W.A.’s remaining members and their manager.
What starts out as an ensemble piece, transforms into a character study of Eazy-E, what happens after N.W.A.’s split, and a carefully handling of Eazy-E’s death due to complications from AIDS at the age of 31. We also see Dr. Dre continuing his music career as he worked with Snoop Dogg, Tupac and the infamous Suge Knight for Deathrow Records, and the beginning of Ice Cube’s solo career and movie stardom. It also manages to touch on the beginnings of the infamous East Coast/West Coast rivalry that produced classic songs and untimely deaths.
Straight Outta Compton is long but it never bores, there is such rich history on display and delectable acting that it grips you from the very beginning. The cast is strong; going beyond looks, the actors capture their character’s mannerisms, swagger and passion. There are these small understated moments between each character that oozes chemistry, but there are also minor characters that shine.
R. Marcus Taylor is a massive presence, not only in size but as a looming darkness as Suge Knight. Marcc Rose as Tupac Shakur is literally breathtaking despite having one of the smallest scenes as he raps “California Love.” Rogelio Douglas Jr., as Chuck D, Sheldon A. Smith as Warren G, Mark Sherman as Jimmy Iovine and Marlon Yates Jr., as The D.O.C., also makes an appearance.
Every single actor holds their own, Corey Hawkins, a dead ringer for Dr. Dre, is every bit of a leader. O’Shea Jackson proves that talent runs in the family as his father Ice Cube (he needs to continue to follow in his father’s acting footsteps), while Aldis Hodge as MC Ren and Neil Brown, Jr. as DJ Yella are reduced to sidekicks and comic reliefs roles.
Then there’s Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E who breathes life into the movie. He is in every shape and form a master class in acting. Despite undergoing three hours of makeup, the role never becomes a caricature; he is three-dimensional, sympathetic and raw. Paul Giamatti as Heller rounds out the cast as a charming and sneaky business manager who takes the group under his wing, almost protecting them (the best he can) from the police who in one scene humiliates the group for standing outside a recording studio.
In no shape or form is this movie perfect. Produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, it takes great liberties to make their characters the most honest and sympathetic, leaving out Dre’s history with abusing women (violently beating reporter Dee Barne after an interview), illegal business deals, allegations of homophobia/anti-Semitism/misogyny and other shady doings. However, Suge Knight is portrayed the most straightforward as a modern day mob boss hotheaded who beats his way into getting whatever he wants with brutal force, even at Eazy-E’s expense.
Even with its flaws, director Gary F. Gray is in his element. Straight Outta Compton is one of the best bio-pics ever; even when the movie becomes broader, Gary never loses focus. Despite the group separating over twenty years ago, their message resonates today. N.W.A.’s well documented long-standing feud with law enforcement is beautifully depicted and resonates in a timely and relevant way due to the Black Lives Matter movement, the events of Ferguson, and numerous police brutality cases in the news, paving the way for artists today to make statements about law enforcement without heavy repercussions.
Unlike today’s generation, despite laws protecting Freedom of Speech, during their infamous 1989 concert, N.W.A. was arrested for just performing “Fuck the Police” in Detroit simply because the police didn’t like it, serving as an important role as a representative for the middle-class Caucasian community uncomfortable with gangsta rap despite the fact the group had many young Caucasian fans singing right along with them.
Masterfully filmed by Gray, this scene pays homage to their music video of the same name. N.W.A. went toe-to-toe with the FBI who considered their lyrics a threat to their safety when they openly made comments condemning the Rodney King verdict. They actively stood for what they believed in, something that’s barely seen by artist today who would rather have Twitter feuds and stand behind their publicist.
Straight Outta Compton is a must-see by all. It is a thrilling, at times hilarious, full-throttle ride that finely balances drama with comedy. Never feeling too heavy-handed, it is a historical trip down memory lane supported by one of the best movie soundtracks which helps to elevate each scene and emotion.
Handled with such care, the music focuses on the group’s R&B influences, top 40 Hip-Hop sounds that dominated the airways (there’s even a nod to Wu-Yang Clan), and a musical montage of artists N.W.A. influenced today, educating those that without N.W.A., there wouldn’t be an Eminem, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Fifty Cent, or many other sounds (Beats by Dre) and artists that teenagers sing-along to today.
Straight Outta Compton is a reminder that what was created by society in the streets landed in boardrooms, shaping America into what it is today… whether you like it or not.