Like the pioneering rap/hip-hop group whose story it so compellingly tells, Straight Outta Compton is nothing short of a revelation. For those who watched firsthand in the late 80’s and early 90’s the rise of N.W.A. and their effect on the world musically and culturally, it will most likely feel like stepping back in time to that tumultuous period, thanks to the meticulous production and detailed vision of director F. Gary Gray and producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. But that’s only half of what makes it great.
The other half is just how intimate and emotional the portrait of the men behind the monikers — O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), Andre Young (Dr. Dre), and Eric Wright (Eazy-E) — and their friendship truly is. The film takes audiences on a tour through the pivotal moments and forces that brought those three, along with MC Ren and DJ Yella, together and to unexpected prominence in the musical world, as well as the ones that divided them and nearly destroyed their brotherhood. In so doing, it delivers a narrative so mesmerizing that even those with scant knowledge of the music or the times that inspired it should find themselves wholly enthralled. You can’t take your eyes or ears off of it, for its authenticity in depicting the past and in pointing a not-so-subtle finger at how that past and its social and political realities aren’t nearly as far back in the rear view mirror as people might like to think they are.
Straight Outta Compton begins with the origins of N.W.A. in 1987: Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) was making his living selling dope and narrowly avoiding getting busted for it in South Central Los Angeles, while Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) and fellow deejay Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.) were spinning records for $50 a gig as part of the “World Class Wreckin’ Cru”, and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) was riding a school bus home to Compton each day, chronicling the social inequities and racial profiling he saw and experienced all around him day after day in poems and lyrics scribbled in a composition notebook. Dre and Yella easily saw Cube’s lyrical genius and eagerly mixed beats to go along with them, but they needed E’s vision and business savvy to create the opportunity and the means to do more than just spin in clubs. With working capital from E and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) completing the ensemble, the new group finally records and distributes their first single, “Boyz in the Hood.”
That single, and the tremendous demand for local radio airplay it garnered, catches the attention of veteran music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who convinces E to pool their resources in order to start up Ruthless Records and release N.W.A.’s debut album, “Straight Outta Compton”, whose very title declared to the music world that there was rap and hip-hop worth talking about that came from somewhere aside from the East Coast and the likes of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys.
From there, for a brief time, there seems like no height of success the group can’t reach, and no authority they can’t thumb their nose at as their raps describe for the world at large what day-to-day life in working class Compton was like with unflinching honesty, explicitly bawdy humor, and most often unbridled rage. For every effort of the establishments — musical, social, political — that tried to muzzle them or otherwise keep them down, more and more of the music sold, and more and more fans clamored for more music. But by 1989, after just one infamous 40-date tour, the group was gone, its most talented members pursuing solo careers as performers and producers, with the bitter feelings behind their dissolution fueling years of competing acts and “diss tracks” featuring disparaging lyrics and personal attacks that at times led to very public violence.
And by 1995 one of their brotherhood was dead, claimed by the HIV virus and AIDS, leaving the others as well as the musical world to mourn and to wonder what might have been.
At first glance, what’s immediately striking about Straight Outta Compton is just how much the actors cast as these now-iconic pioneers of rap and hip-hop simply look and sound their parts when performing, none more so than Ice Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father in his debut acting role. The physicality, the cadence, the on-stage delivery of those original West Coast raps as delivered by Cube back in the day are seemingly channeled by Jackson Jr. to the point where the two are almost indistinguishable. The other performers, though they may not share the level of physical resemblance that father and son do, evoke their real-life counterparts in other ways, through on-stage physicality, mannerisms, or in the cases of Dre and Yella, spinning and mixing technique on stage and in the recording studio. Wherever the setting, the actors’ chemistry and affinity with each other stands out — however much audiences might attribute that to their own talent versus the direction and input from the real-life N.W.A. themselves doesn’t really matter. It just works … really, really well.
But if Straight Outta Compton was just a series of well-recreated iconic performances by N.W.A., then it still wouldn’t be much of a movie at all. Like so many stories about the rise and fall of great musical acts, so much of what makes this story so fascinating is the drama behind the scenes, before and after the performances, and those scenes are brought to life just as authentically as the performance scenes are. It’s in bringing to life those scenes that director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen) deserves so much credit, and that actor Jason Mitchell, playing Eazy-E, truly makes his mark, as E’s part in the whole tale is arguably the most emotional and tragic. Mitchell often shares screen time with the always-phenomenal Paul Giamatti, whose character is treated with perhaps more nuance and objectivity than one might expect. Without a doubt, the film’s script holds Heller and his management of N.W.A. for the group’s sudden demise, but it also grants that Heller had a very genuine appreciation for Eazy-E, for the group’s talent, and for just how revolutionary and important the music and the issues it was casting a stark light on really were.
Now, for those out there who have concerns about what sort of message the film may be sending or what sorts of response might be inspired by the acts of protest and defiance of law and government depicted in the film, well, you may just be missing the point entirely. What should be clear to anyone walking out of this film, though it’s never articulated explicitly during the film’s running time, is that despite “Straight Outta Compton” having landed in the hands of listeners on vinyl and cassette tapes more than 25 years ago the issues of social inequality, disenfranchisement, racial profiling by local authorities, police brutality as an institutional response to the pervasiveness of the drug trade and gang violence haven’t really changed all that much, and certainly haven’t gone away. If anything, what N.W.A. and the musical genre they helped found did was open a new venue for conversation and discourse about those issues, and revealed them to a world public that didn’t necessarily want to know about it.
Straight Outta Compton the film, in addition to being a very personal account of the very real people who made up that group, is a very finely crafted account of how that group worked hard to keep their emotional and personal message heard, whether people wanted to hear it or not. The LAST thing you should be is afraid to go see Straight Outta Compton because of what it depicts and what it might lead people who see it to do. Instead, see it for yourself, enjoy it for the remarkable film experience that it is and open your mind and your ears to what it’s actually saying. You may be surprised at just how much you understand where the attitude — the “A” in the group’s name, after all — comes from.
Straight Outta Compton
Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown, Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
Running Time: 157 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.