by Philip Price
Just to give some perspective on where this particular review is coming from, I was born in 1987. By this time the likes of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella were already beginning to make waves in their home town of Compton, Calif. In just a little over a year’s time these five individuals, collectively known as N.W.A, would release their seminal record that shares its title with the group’s new biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” Naturally, I wouldn't come to be familiar with either N.W.A or what impact they had on popular culture until much later despite my dad schooling me and my siblings on his favorite old school hip hop records in the early ‘90s. As I turned into a teenager at the turn of the millennium if I had any connection to Ice Cube it was more for his movie career than anything else while Dr. Dre was having his resurgence (at least from where I was sitting) with 2001 and the discovery that was Eminem. It wasn't until I matured a little further that it became more vital for me to understand a wider range of musical knowledge that would help me comprehend what informed the music I was currently enjoying. Attending a middle school and junior high at the time that contained as many black students as it did white kids like myself, there was an interesting mix of cultures to be observed. One could never hope to comprehend the full extent of other people’s lives due to the circumstances into which they were born at that age, but listening to the same type of music didn't hurt in attempting to at least glean a surface-level understanding of where others were coming from. As myself and my brothers would come to have an increased level of interest in music (especially the funk of the ‘70s that our mom would listen to) the world became a clearer place where it was easier to figure out where you might fit into the grand scheme of things. Going through what had come before my birth date one inevitably comes across N.W.A and through their lyrics alone is able to gather not only where they were coming from at the time of their emergence, but what influence they've had since. And so, I come at “Straight Outta Compton” as an individual who wasn't able to experience the initial impact of this group, but who finally is able to bear witness to it through the magic of the movies.
Taking all of that into consideration, going into a film like “Straight Outta Compton” and how much you enjoy what it has to offer will largely be due to where you're coming at it from. If you know nothing about the rap super group then you will likely get lost a few times here and there given the film doesn't take the time to slow down and explain it's many players, but more or less expects you to know who these people are. Truth is, if you buy a ticket for “Straight Outta Compton” you probably already know much of this story if not at least being familiar with the music and characters at play. Directed by F. Gary Gray the film opens up by introducing us to the major trio that would come to found N.W.A. First up is Eazy-E or Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) who we meet in 1986 and who is attempting to collect some drug money he is owed. The dope house he enters is quickly infiltrated by a S.W.A.T. team with a tank and battering ram that is so perfectly documented with its hazy, smoke-filled aesthetic and heavy yellow lighting that we are immediately dropped not only into the time period, but the kind of world this guy existed in. We move onto Andre Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) who, at 21, is still living with his mom, but also has a girlfriend and a daughter (which in real-life is a son) to take care of. His mother is pushing him to get a job, but Dre protests he already has one DJ-ing at a local club that earns him a few bucks. Then there is O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (played in the film by Cube's real-life son O'Shea Jackson Jr.) who we meet as he sits on a school bus staring out at his rather suburban-seeming high school. The bus eventually delivers him back to Compton where he kicks it with Dre and throws out a few of his poems over what Dre is experimenting with now that he's staying with Antoine Carrabin or DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). It isn't until Dre prompts Eazy with doing something substantial with "this music shit" that Eazy decides to back a recording session with his drug money and brings in Lorenzo Patterson aka MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to complete the group.
“Straight Outta Compton” is full of energy, at least for the majority of its two and a half hour runtime. It is a film that grabs you right from the beginning, throwing the audience into the midst of what this generation was facing and experiencing as far as prejudice and pop culture is concerned. Though the film offers little context as to where N.W.A fit into the larger rap landscape it is insinuated that "reality rap" isn't necessarily what's topping the charts and that Dre and his gang intend to change that, making their name by doing something different, something real. What the film does to capture this reality is what allows it to transcend the bio-pic conventions it has to sometimes yield to in order to convey all of the story the movie looks to tell. We are given the facts (used loosely, but meaning scenes that exemplify) of what would eventually become trademark lyrics in the film’s early moments. This is probably best summed up by the infuriating and genuinely effective scene where the boys are working on the Straight Outta Compton album and are forced to the ground and searched by a couple of Torrance cops, including one black cop, simply for looking the way they do. From here, things only continue to escalate, building from the track this incident inspired through to a Detroit concert where Ice Cube puts his money where his mouth is and defiantly performs, "Fuck the Police," to a crowd littered with cops. Of course, there is the obvious correlation of these events to the sad fact the same things are still occurring in this country today, more than 25 years after the titular album was released. Given this is a film review, I'm not going to go further into the politics of who is right and who is wrong or how much of a gray area there is in these dealings, but the topics and issues this film inherently deals with inevitably make it all the more poignant and timely given the circumstances the world is in at the time it's being released.
As mentioned above, the film runs for nearly two and a half hours and because of its decade spanning timeline and the depths of which it covers the people involved in creating this music and the events that inspired them it feels like something of an epic. Epic in the vein of narrating the deeds of these now historical figures and rap heroes that explains the caveats of the history of south Los Angeles County. What causes some hesitance with the biopic is that it was produced by both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. This leads one to wonder how much they might have influenced the direction of the screenplay. It becomes clear from the beginning that Eazy is the central figure in that without him, none of this would have been possible in the first place. It also makes it clear Eazy was never the actual talent of the group. Eazy oozed charisma and that makes it through to the screen via the wonderful performance of Mitchell, but by alienating Cube and Dre through N.W.A's manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), he drove himself out of the prosperity his contemporaries would go on to enjoy. Eazy was never the best rapper and he didn't write his own lyrics, but as the film unfolds you can feel the narrative making him an audience favorite by way of his abundant charisma. It is once the film collapses into the break-up of N.W.A over disagreements with money and contracts that the pace also begins to stutter slightly. The film never sputters out as it remains consistently engaging due simply to the swagger and bravado of the characters and the more than solid performances on screen, but one can definitely feel a change of pace in the second half of the film once the characters have achieved their success and the forward velocity of the rising star arc has been told. That said, one has to be curious how the facts compare to the rather favorable interpretations given to Dre and Cube and how things might have looked were they not listed as producers on the film.
Given the fact this film probably wouldn't have been made without the involvement of N.W.A's two biggest success stories and that they pride themselves on being legit it's easier to swallow much of what this movie is feeding us. Overall, the film is simply put: really, really good. There are several scenes that stand out as instant classics such as those when Dre is trying to teach Eazy how to rap on, "Boyz N The Hood," or when Ice Cube has left the group and the remainder of them are listening to his rebuttal, "No Vaseline," after N.W.A starts a diss war between the two of them. Brown Jr.'s reaction to his first listen to the track is comedy gold. It is almost eerie how much Jackson Jr. looks like his father in certain shots, but more than this it is how well he embodies the style of Ice Cube and the way he carries himself, the way he stares you down and the way he so effortlessly articulates smart ass soliloquies at the drop of a hat that really make his performance feel exceptional. Jackson Jr.'s stage presence is electrifying in itself, but when combined with the natural charisma Mitchell elicits as Eazy and the brooding, overlord quality that Hawkins (a graduate of Julliard) embodies as Dr. Dre it is a lethal combination that sets ”Straight Outta Compton” up not only as a great music biopic, but a great film in general. Sure, it has its issues in trying to contain its sprawling epicness (apparently the first cut of the film was nearly four hours), but I can't help but feel that on repeat viewings (and trust me, there will be many of them) I will only come to love and enjoy this movie more and more.