Sometimes you could do more damage to the system and inflict change on a worldwide scale with a mic than you ever could with a gun. Such is the case with the monumental groundbreaking hip hop group N.W.A. that forever changed music by introducing a new genre called gangsta rap while revealing the dark world of inner city life that most don’t know of. A musical biopic about an 80s hip hop group would be the last thing I would expect but when putting them against the backdrop of the tumultuous time in the mid to late 80s in Compton and you begin to see how important it all was. It certainly borrows some formulas from past biopics but what makes it stand out is the world of hip hop is being shown and explored, the major influence it had on the genre and how it garnered attention from each and every known authority, including the FBI. One does not to necessarily be a fan of N.W.A. or rap as it’s still entertaining if one doesn’t but it makes it that much more fun if a person was. Equal parts funny, thrilling and downright heartbreaking; you’d be hard-pressed to not be impressed by a quintet of young, angry and hungry artists who are tired of being oppressed at every corner.
The story starts out in 1986 in Compton, California where longtime drug dealer and hustler Eazy-E/Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) is in the midst of a drug deal. Dr. Dre/Andre Young (Corey Hawkins) is an up and coming DJ who makes his way spinning records for the World Class Wreckin' Cru with an aspiring rapper DJ Yella/Antoine Carraby (Neil Brown, Jr.), an electro-hop group, a genre that would be very popular at that time. Ice Cube/O'Shea Jackson (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) is a talented writer who expresses his struggle growing up in South Central, Los Angeles through lyrics. MC Ren/Lorenzo Patterson (Aldis Hodge) is also a writer with ties to Eazy-E as a longtime friend. everyone basically knew everyone more or less before they were in N.W.A. but the group eventually got together not too long after Eazy-E started his record label Ruthless Records with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) acting as the groups manager. Together they released the revolutionary and controversial album Straight Outta Compton with the blistering track “Fuck Tha Police” becoming an instant lighting rod that would bring the group instant fame but many controversies. Each member of N.W.A. struggles to keep everything at bay as tragedies strike, ego and greed take over as the world becomes increasingly more hectic and manic.
Being a huge fan of rap and hip hop, it was easy for me to get on board for a biopic and listen to N.W.A.s music. I was too young to actually understand and listen to them when they released their music at the time but I always heard rumblings of N.W.A. all around me, mainly on TV. I haven’t even listened to Straight Outta Compton from beginning to end till I bought the album the day the film was released. Of course I’ve heard “Fuck Tha Police” but without knowing much about the group or their history, the meaning was somewhat lost on me. Now I can see and hear the major influence the group has had on music and culture in general. Regardless of what anyone thinks about rap and its stance as a genre of music as well as its importance as a whole, it cannot be denied that N.W.A. is a part of history and changed it in many ways.
I don’t see that many musical biopics but I can see the format coming from a mile away that covers most of them. One only has to see Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to see how ridiculous it looks when it’s endlessly parodied. Straight Outta Compton follows the same formula, five individuals with differing backgrounds but grow up in the same area, mainly the crime ridden Compton and South Central, LA are united together through their love of music, rap and speaking one’s mind about the ugly transgressions of growing up in the hood. It’s no different a set up than Walk The Line or Ray but a different era and genre of music as the background. It has moments of going through the motions with setups that are inevitable in these types of films like label squabbles, group infighting and the shady manager but its set up in a way that feels fresh and makes you forget that some parts have been overused in the past. As soon as the beats start dropping and the mayhem starts, it doesn’t really matter as it’s just so much fun to watch and instantly engaging. Movies about being in the hood aren’t as popular as they once were since every type of those films has been done before, hitting its stride in the early to mid-90s. But underdog tales always sell so mashing those two genres together is instantly watchable and relatable. It feels like an entirely different movie about being set in the hood, while being on the same level as those very same classics like Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society, Juice and Friday.
Straight Outta Compton gets on the ground running instantly with a rather tense standoff with Eazy-E and a group of drug dealers who own him money. It does this also with Dre and Cube in their own separate introductions and smaller ones for Yella and Ren. You see their motivations to better their lives and get out of the crime ridden homes and situations they find themselves stuck in. you can feel the grittiness and desperation of the situation which was helped massively by Gray’s cohesive direction. He wasn’t afraid to show a world with all its flaws and dangers while painting a portrait of a world that is long gone but still has some remnants popping up now and again. There are many moving parts in a movie like this where it can be easy to get lost in the many subplots but he does more than an admirable job of handling everything involved to make a rather complete as can be hip hop epic. Gray wasn’t going to be able to cover everything that he wanted but the more important stories to the overall film. But with a runtime of two and half hours, it feels like it ran the right length and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
As soon as it hits into high gear, you don’t want the ride to stop and Gray has more than enough fuel to keep it running even if there are some hiccups along the way. He looks as if he’s revitalized as a director and more refreshed than he has ever been since his classic debut with Friday. It’s a world that he knows all too well and has the confidence to portray a world of gritty crime and poverty as he’s also shown with Set It Off. He also has extensive experience with music videos as he was once a prominent director of many, including Ice Cube’s classic “It Was A Good Day”. The musical performances were some of the best parts of the film where you can’t help but bob your head, tap your foot and rap the lyrics to the addictive beats. Hearing “Fuck Tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” on the big screen was a great experience and quite a visceral one as it comes at you like a punch in the mouth.
The screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff covers a wide ground with nearly a decade of content condensed into two and a half hours. With so many characters, a lot of stuff is left out on the cutting room floor but it managed to be concise with each character getting ample time, some more than others obviously but there can only be so much content covered in the time allotted. It was funnier than I expected with many humorous scenes sprinkled throughout the film and offsetting the more dramatic and sad moments. A lot of those moments were wholly unexpected and surprising with one scene involving a groupie, her boyfriend and N.W.A. at a hotel party to be one of the funniest moments in the entire movie. I would dare not spoil it as it’s simply too hilarious to do so. Another funny scene was Eazy-E trying to rap for the first time, attempting to rap “Boyz-n-the-Hood” but failing with humorous results at first but slowly gaining the charisma and bravado that would make him a legend.
Some of the best parts were seeing N.W.A. form in the beginning and being very sure of themselves despite all of them growing up in poverty stricken backgrounds. But it’s hard to not see the fun when they hit it big and they all go wild with their new found fame. What follows here is the usual backstage business dealings we’ve all seen but with more panache. You see Cube go ballistic on a record label boss’s office, N.W.A. react after hearing Cube’s explosive diss track “Vaseline” aimed at them and Heller consolidate his power with Eazy-E and alienate the rest of the group. The standoff with the Detroit police was wrought with tension as well as N.W.A.s act of defiance in rapping “Fuck Tha Police” against their orders at a concert. But the best moments were the most heartfelt. One of the more memorable was seeing Dre react after hearing of a tragedy in his family and N.W.A. console him as a solid unit.
It’s nice to see that under all that swagger, bravado, boasting and gruffness that they are just guys with families that love them like anyone else and not the complete terrors that the media would want to portray. Although Dee Barnes would think very differently in that retrospect. Barnes was a rapper and reporter who did a report on N.W.A. with Cube where N.W.A. was apparently looked at in a negative light. N.W.A. sought retaliation and Dre found her at a party where he brutally beat her all over the club and bathroom where the rest of the group agreed with the action. Dre pleaded no contest, was fined, on probation and did community service but is clearly too negative to put in a biopic and would change the tone of the film, even if it was all true. Like any biopic, it white washes history to not only fit the more important aspects of the person(s) in question but to also not make the person(s) to look like terrible people. It’s not that huge of an issue as all biopics do that and Dre did his time, even if it was a mild slap on the wrist. It doesn’t affect how the movie is portrayed or the characters in question as it’s still an entertaining film in the end.
The story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff is by no means perfect but in relation to a biopic with only so much screen time and material, it did its job better than most. With so much timed dedicated to the group as a whole, it couldn’t get into the more notorious events that showcased them in a negative light or possibly take the attention of the group instead of focusing on certain individuals. It gets a little contrived at times but it can be forgotten as it shouldn’t be taken as 100% gospel and what is being shown is so much fun. This happens in moments like Dre working on his classic The Chronic album, in particular “Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang” as Snoop Doggy Dogg walks into the living room of his mansion as Dre is putting down the beat. Another is Cube working on the script for Friday and Suge Knight showing his violent tendencies. It’s a minor inference for me as I enjoyed the breezy return to hip hops classic and memorable moments coming into fruition. I loved how it included the acts of police brutality and FBI involvement and how N.W.A. used it to their advantage, knowing that everyone is watching them so they have a bigger chance to get their voice heard with a bigger soap box.
People will complain about how Yella and Ren are downplayed throughout the movie and how they aren’t important. But in reality, they are just as important and vital while being on equal terms talent wise as Cube, Dre or Eazy. Ren wrote four tracks by himself on “Straight Outta Compton”, Cube writing four with both of them collaborating on four. Yella was a co-producer on the album along with Dre and helped with his turntable scratches. It’s just that their careers after N.W.A. aren’t as attractive or notable as Dre or Cube’s and don’t have longstanding legacies as Eazy, Dre or Cube. They both aren’t characters that people instantly think of when they hear N.W.A. and weren’t as enigmatic as the more notable trio. But their role in N.W.A. shouldn’t be downplayed in the slightest. The story included the Rodney King beating, trial and the L.A. riots perfectly, showing a city in battle within itself as the nation sees what N.W.A. was talking about all these years. The portrayal of the riots was beautifully filmed by Gray as it looked like some sort of nightmarish dream sequence that didn’t seem real and still doesn’t seem like it even happened all these years later.
It portrays Compton and L.A. as a brutal battle ground where no one is truly safe from the violence from gangs on the streets or cops patrolling in their cars. It’s a great time capsule that shows that something’s don’t ever really change. One can say that it’s a story that is inspired and showcases the brutality of those in authority to what we see and experience on the news everyday but it isn’t like that at all. Straight Outta Compton has been in production since 2009 when coverage of violence against minorities by police wasn’t as hot a topic as it was now. The timing of it all just made it that much more relevant but is something that shouldn’t be ignored. The soundtrack was obviously outstanding with every now classic song sounding great on the big screen with surround sound. I loved how it went over certain moments with the music of the time and made it important to the overall scene. Seeing and hearing N.W.A. rap “Fuck Tha Police” on the big screen was a great experience that really made it like you were there in concert.
The story is obviously full of misogyny, homophobia, racism and antisemitism with most of it concocted by N.W.A. but that’s all a part of the story and history. It doesn’t make it right but it wouldn’t make sense to not include it in the film. One can say many things about gangsta rap and rap in general in how it glorifies the criminal aspect, drug dealing, violence against women, authority figures and is a bad influence on impressionable youth, but one can say that about various genres of film and books. One should not single out one genre of entertainment for its perceived negative qualities and instead look at how culture and society in general are creating a genre such as gangsta rap to come to fruition. If Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A. has proven anything, it’s that you don’t need to fight cops with bottles and fists, loot stores or burn a city to the ground. All it takes is a group of intelligent, mindful and strong-willed people who aren’t afraid to speak up, loud when needed and rather frequently while not putting up with something that aims to demoralize them anymore. N.W.A. wasn’t about inflicting violence on cops or innocent people but to fight against the system that means to separate, divide and conquer and show that the people in power can’t push around the small and weak anymore without any consequences whatsoever. Five guys realized the power they all had and how freedom of speech allowed such brazen things to be said. If only more people had the gumption to say what needed to be said regardless of how it may be perceived by a wide populace.
The acting from everyone in N.W.A. was great but the trio of Jackson, Jr., Hawkins and Mitchell as Cube, Dre and Eazy were particular outstanding with three differing performances that made for a well-rounded and diverse set of performances. They all have the right vocalizations and mannerisms as well as rapping ability to present a great performance of an iconic group. Giamatti as the scrupulous manager is always great in a wide variety of roles and hits it out of the park here as he usually does. Each actor brought something different to the table and had a moment that made you stop and just realize how amazing the acting really is. It was a great choice to cast mainly young and not as well-known actors in the main roles but it was a little strange in one particular case. Jackson, Jr. is the son of O’Shea Jackson who is better known as Ice Cube. Having your son play you in a biopic seems a little out of the ordinary but it all makes sense when you see him in action. Jackson, Jr. perfectly embodies Ice Cube to a bizarre degree as it feels like you are actually watching Ice Cube in his twenties.
He not only has a strong resemblance to his father but he also has the trademark scowl, bubbling intensity and quiet emotionality to make Cube come to life flawlessly. Hawkins as Dre was perhaps the most emotional but he has the most to lose and over the course of the movie lost more than most. With a child and a girlfriend who wants nothing to do with him and his burgeoning rap career, he is the most vulnerable. You see the struggle within him to make better of his situation and make good on his amazing talent as well as the now iconic artists all around him. One notable scene is Dre losing his cool when he’s trying to record Tupac Shakur’s “Hail Mary” and Death Row boss Suge Knight is partying hard outside the studio. You see the tenacity that would eventually make him one of the biggest influences in rap as well as the most successful. But Mitchell easily stole the show as the late and great Eazy-E, like the real Eazy-E did with much of his tenure in N.W.A. It’s perhaps the first and last portrayal of a drug dealer, gangster and outright madman turn into a rapper, CEO and the eventual godfather of gangsta rap. The story of Eazy-E was simply made for the cinematic treatment as it’s simply too ridiculous to be true.
Despite his size, his demeanor and attitude is that of a pit-bull, a man you do not want to cross at any cost. Like most in N.W.A., he is unapologetic, fearless and unwilling to back down. But it’s the moments where he is pushed against the wall and on his back where you see the murky layers beneath his gruff exterior that adds a new dimension to not only himself but the film as a whole. With N.W.A. disbanding and his friends leaving him, he finds himself more and more alone left with only his manager that got him started in the first place. It reaches its climax when he is struck with a life threatening diagnosis of AIDS and has nowhere to go or do but wait till it takes his life. Without ever being aware of his existence while I was alive and only recently hearing about his life, it still struck me hard as it’s always awful to see such a young guy die so tragically. You can’t help but feel bad for him even if he might as well signed his own death warrant by being so promiscuous with so many groupies over the years, fathering 7 children with 6 different women.
Giamatti was his usually great and awesome scenery chewing self, taking over some scenes with bravado and anger. None of the young actors playing N.W.A. felt out of place up against such a well-regarded and respected actor as Giamatti and showed on more than one occasion that they are up to the challenge. Giamatti played Heller like most managers in music biopics, greedy, shady and in the use of a divide and conquer strategy. But it’s the chemistry that Giamatti had with Mitchell that put his performance over the top as you can see the love and admiration that he had for Eazy-E despite him doing what was best for himself and not Eazy. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him in the end also as you can see how sorry he is for his past actions despite everything else that went on. Giamatti is what I believe to be one of films greatest yellers today and he does his fair share of yelling with passion, frustration and seriousness. When he gets pissed off, you really feel it, especially when he reacts after hearing Cubes diss to N.W.A. and himself. Hodge as Ren and Brown as Yella weren’t as important overall to the story but their performances were still as vital to the film. But Brown more so than Ren made an impact with some memorable funny moments and lines that bring down the seriousness a bit.
Straight Outta Compton is like many past musical biopics but at the same time it’s not. It’s unlike dozens of other biopics in that it’s trying to show a story of a musical group and genre that hasn’t been told in this scope before as well as saying sometime timely and relevant to recent incidents involving police brutality that has had the country bubbling with violence and controversy. I wasn’t sure it would be effective with translating something as controversial as this or be dramatically poignant. But with the help of F. Gary Gray and his swift direction, it eclipsed many of my expectations in fluidly transcribing a violent and graphic genre from its inception and transporting the topic of police brutality from the mid-80s to the 21st century with ease. The acting from Mitchell, Hawkins and Jackson, Jr. was outstanding with three different and magnetic personalities with all of them perfectly encapsulating the young and iconic rappers to a tee. It’s very likely that there won’t be another biopic like this as there more than likely won’t be a group such as N.W.A. It's easy to see the parallels in the culture from yesteryear all the way up to now and see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. If the N.W.A. from the late 80s saw what was happening right now, it’s hard to say if they would be angry or sad. But they wouldn’t let such incidents go by without having their say on the matter, regardless if it made someone uncomfortable. Eight unlawful acts of police brutality out of ten.