When people think of the genre of rap music (a.k.a. hip-hop music), they might be thinking of the subgenre of hardcore gangster rap ("gangsta rap") and the negative connotations that go with it. It's controversial enough that critics continue to voice their concerns over the music, which has not stopped rappers from creating their tracks. As a result, rap is a form of music that, despite a strong following, initially had some difficulty being widely accepted by mainstream America. It may also explain why, for a while, movies about rap music have not really been considered for production, until movies like Hustle and Flow, the 50 Cent movie Get Rich or Die Tryin', and Notorious in 2009 came along. Eventually, in 2015, we are presented with the biographical rap music drama Straight Outta Compton, a film that is exciting and dramatic in its portrayal of gangsta rap.
First off, the movie chose an appropriate rap group to focus on. It could've centered on specific rappers from the 1970s or 1980s in New York where the genre had its origins, but finding such artists whose stories could connect with audiences today might be difficult. The alternative would be to find a rap group who took the genre to the next level. There are plenty of examples of that, one of which can be found on the West Coast: N.W.A., which stands for "Niggaz Wit Attitudes." This group hailing from Compton, California, in the late 1980s not only produced creative music, but also sparked intense controversy with lyrics related to the harsh ghetto its members grew up in.
Let's take a moment to become familiar with N.W.A.'s members as well as the actors playing them in this biopic: Eric Wright a.k.a. Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Andre Young a.k.a. Dr. Dre (played by Corey Hawkins), O'Shea Jackson a.k.a. Ice Cube (played by O'Shea Jackson Jr., the real-life son of Ice Cube), Antoine Carraby a.k.a. DJ Yella (played by Neil Brown Jr.), and Lorenzo Patterson a.k.a. MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge). As for who does what, Eazy-E appears here as the group's main rapper, Ice Cube writes many of the song lyrics, and the remaining three work more with the background beats for the music. (Of course, in real life, they're sharing many of those responsibilities.) If there's one thing that bonds all of these young men, it's their love of music and their desire to create something special for others to listen and dance to.
Straight Outta Compton may be a film about hip-hop/rap music and its controversies, but it's still a biographical drama about musicians. There are scenes that depict N.W.A.'s initial popularity among locals, the record deal with producer Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), the formation of Ruthless Records, the release of the album Straight Outta Compton, the concert tour that follows, the fame and fortune that pour in, the conflicts that ensue between members when the group makes it big, and a little drama in certain members' personal lives. I would say that two-thirds of this film is a music drama, so it's not too different from other movies about musicians. If you like that kind of movie, you can enjoy this one as well, provided that you put aside any biases you may have about rap.
As for the other one-third of the movie, it's a drama that can lend itself to social commentary. There are several moments where the N.W.A. members are harassed by police, with or without arrest, for no apparent reason, other than fear that any young black man who looks like a street thug will cause trouble without notice. Also, the first scene of the film shows Eazy-E involved in a drug deal that takes a very nasty turn. Scenes like this remind us why people like the members of N.W.A. want to tell stories and express themselves in gangsta rap: the reality of living in a crime-ridden ghetto is harsh and deadly, something many people don't want to acknowledge or address. Really, the non-musical scenes are related to the musical part of the story. Another example of this is when rivalries between competing rappers turn violent, because they have gotten used to settling disputes with brutal force.
Now let me discuss the one big thing about N.W.A. that highlights the group's fame as well as this film's juxtaposition of music and human drama: the highly controversial song "Fuck tha Police." (I usually censor adult language in my reviews, but given that this film is about a group pushing the limits of expression, I'm going to make an exception here.) Even if you do not listen to that song, the title alone already offends members of the law enforcement community and their supporters. What amazed me was how the film presents both sides. While we can sympathize with cops who are frustrated by that song, the film also reminds us that the song is presented because of the frustration with police brutality, given the police encounter scenes I mentioned earlier. The concert scene in this film where N.W.A. performs that song is done so powerfully that, in my opinion, some critics of rap music might open their minds and understand what the music is intended to do: give a voice to people who have long been kept silent. (Sadly, the song has a chilling relevance to current events as the film hit theaters, because in the years leading up to its release, there have been several national news items in America about white police officers killing unarmed black people.)
Hopefully, what I've described so far demonstrates that the story presented in Straight Outta Compton is very good. You might also wonder what I think of the cast. In one word, I would describe it as fantastic. The five actors playing the members of N.W.A. are terrific in portraying men who enjoy the rise to stardom, frown when drama is thrown into the mix, or cry when things really get devastating. Forget the fact that the characters learned some of the wrong things from the streets of Compton. The movie presents them as human beings who, like anyone else, want to be successful in life. As for Paul Giamatti playing producer Jerry Heller, he's terrific as a guy who is optimistic about N.W.A.'s success and intense when things go wrong. Beyond that, you can appreciate the cast portraying other major players in the rap business, including Death Row Records producer Suge Knight, rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, and even Tupac Shakur.
All in all, Straight Outta Compton is an outstanding movie. It presents a pivotal moment in music history in a way that is honest and fair without any sugarcoating. I'm not someone who has ever been closely familiar with N.W.A. or any other gangsta rap group, but I was still able to appreciate the group during their rise and fall while watching this movie. I especially loved how the epilogue during the start of the closing credits shows us how influential N.W.A. really was for the world of rap music. So if I ever see devoted N.W.A. fans paying tribute to their favorite group, I can understand why. The members of N.W.A., those "Niggaz Wit Attitudes" coming "Straight Outta Compton," gave the music world something to remember.
Anthony's Rating: 10/10
(Review originally published at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Film/S/Straight_Outta_Compton.htm)