At a time when race relations are yet again at a boiling point in American society and media, it seems as though the time has come for art to step up and say the things the media won't. This is the legacy of hip hop culture, and as NWA's original 1988 album Straight Outta Compton once did, their 2015 biopic comes as a testament to the power of free speech, the oppressive force of the police against minorities, and the evolution of American music and culture.
Straight Outta Compton is directed by F. Gary Gray and tells the story of NWA, one of the most influential and controversial music groups of all time. The story of the film focuses on the three most key members of the group's formation: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. From their humble beginnings of growing up in gang-dominated Compton, CA, to becoming the biggest names in music, this film details all the monumental highs and tragic lows of their densely packed history as a group and in their personal lives.
One of the biggest strengths this film has is its deeply human element; the fear of getting caught between the violent gangs and oppressive police, the drive to make art that reflects and reports on an abused and ignored faction of society, and the turbulence of human relationships are all made clear and believable by the phenomenal acting. O'Shea Jackson Jr.'s portrayal of his father, Ice Cube, is believable not only for his resemblance, but for the deep knowledge he knows for his father's character and personality. The rest of the cast, including Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, provide equally passionate performances to truly become these real, influential people. Paul Giamatti's portrayal of the sharp-tongued, knowledgeable, and two-timing manager Jerry Heller seems at first like an odd choice for the use of his big name, until you see that this is the exact character Giamatti is born to play.
At two and a half hours long, the film is packed with details from the formation of NWA in 1986 to the death of Eazy-E in 1995. In less than a decade, the efforts of NWA, Ruthless Records, Death Row Records, and others they've inspired transformed American pop culture and revitalized hip hop on a national scale. With all of that comes some serious drama between its members, parts of it working more than others. In the beginning, watching the group rise to fame with their passion of music and attempts to rise above the violent nature of the world they knew, the drama felt real. Once they all got famous and split off, the fighting started to feel more like petty bickering. Obviously, this is how the events actually occurred and the movie is meant to retell it as close to the real events as possible, but in the elongated run time of the film, some of it felt like it could be cut.
As a music movie, it works phenomenally. Two highlights of the film include seeing the inspiration behind their anthemic "F*** Tha Police" and the FBI investigation into them because of it, and the origination of what we know today as the "diss track," resulting from the feud between Ice Cube and the rest of NWA. These are incredible moments in the film because they demonstrate not only the human element behind famous works of art, but also the origin of such common staples as the rebelliousness and dissing that we know in hip hop today. The inclusion of cameos by actors portraying Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur go even farther to show what an influence NWA has made in the world of hip hop music.
Straight Outta Compton is passionately acted, dramatically written, and all-around believable. While some members of NWA may have differing views from what were expressed on screen, this works very well on its own as a movie. It's a little long and can stretch the conflict a bit thin, but constantly reminds you of the world from which a new American art form was built, and how issues that are so prevalent today have always been. One of the most important scenes in this film actually has nothing to do with NWA, or even hip hop, but instead the important subject matter from which they drew their inspiration. The scene where the characters react to the acquittal of the police involved in the Rodney King beating, followed by riots in the streets, and a final shot of a red bandana tied to a blue one (signifying the cooperation of the infamous Blood and Crip gangs) show just what hip hop is trying to report about. This is a movie that does more than explain the "five w's" about a rap group, and even the music itself. This is a movie that explores that world, shows what it's like for that world to be your reality, and gets you to root for people you may have never understood or agreed with before. If you are familiar with hip hop and are a fan of the genre, you are going to love this movie. If you are not as familiar, then you're about to get a rude awakening, and be happy that you did.