'Straight Outta Compton' Review: The Strength of Street Knowledge.
Straight Outta Compton is a biopic for the legendary gangster rap group that ushered in a whole new era of music and youth culture in America. Produced by two of the founding members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the film gives a more intimate look at their early lives and struggles as they worked to become the icons they are today.
Directed by previous Ice Cube collaborator, F. Gary Gray (Friday and The Italian Job), we are given a very real, and still topical, treatment of the struggles of five inner city youths (MC Ren, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, and Ice Cube) as they take what they've learned and experienced as kids growing up in Compton and translate it into musical form. If you have any familiarity with the group, none of the plot should be particularly surprising, but it is well executed and interesting. At a 147 minute run-time, Straight Outta Compton covers a lot of ground, from the inception of N.W.A. until Dr. Dre parting ways with Suge Knight to found his own label. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) are easily the star performers. O'Shea's portrayal is especially striking, as Ice Cube's actual son is a near splitting image of his father, and each of these characters are very complex, yet all want the same thing. The Jerry Heller character never appears outwardly malicious, but through his actions and Giamatti's emphatic performance, he reveals himself to be much less savory than what was initially introduced.
As far as biopics go, this isn't groundbreaking material, but it deals with a group that went far beyond a pop culture impact. N.W.A. came up around the time of the LA riots, spurred by the beating of Rodney King, and given the current controversy surrounding the lack of oversight on law enforcement a la Michael Brown, the struggles of these five kids in Compton becomes just as relatable in the current political and cultural environment. We feel for these characters being oppressed socially and unfairly judged based on their appearance, and the evolution of their music paints a relevant reflection of their experiences. Over two decades later, society still deals with many of the similar issues that spurred the creation of N.W.A. One of my favorite sequences in the film is the opening, which is a simple stash house exchange featuring a pre N.W.A. Easy-E, and it provided a level of tension that the film managed to maintain throughout. The infamous Detroit performance where they are arrested for playing Fuck the Police provides a climactic point in the film that just starts the journeys of the characters. They may have ushered in a specific era of rap, but they also brought major issues to the societal forefront.
A minor complaint I had was the lack of exposure DJ Yella and MC Ren (Ren, especially) get in the film. They are barely given anything to do other than fill the historical check boxes of the movie and appear more as filler than to provide anything tangible to the story. Perhaps I am biased, since I always found Ren the most underrated member of the group, but the film could function almost identically with those two characters removed. The most interesting performance is Jason Mitchell's Eazy-E. From drug kingpin to music executive, his internal struggle managing fame, friendships, and his code of the streets as he becomes a legitimate mogul allows for some introspective and thought-provoking scenes between the rest of N.W.A. and him. Thankfully, the big three of the group are all given satisfying resolutions (based on fact, of course), and the film never drags, despite its impressive run-time.
Overall, Straight Outta Compton succeeds as a biopic telling the story of arguably the most influential rap group of all time. By showing these kids grow into successful artists in a political structure that already has them fighting the current for success, we're given a relatively faithful and riveting view of the rise and fall of the N.W.A. and their lasting and relevant legacy, despite some major players being shortchanged screen time wise.
Final Say: Watch It