Straight Outta Compton review – epic look at gangster rap pioneers

Straight Outta Compton does gets N.W.A. biopic right

Brash, unapologetic and determined to bring attention to their reality, N.W.A. made an indelible mark on the rap genre. Straight Outta Compton, the biopic detailing the rise, fall and aftermath of the world’s dangerous group, provides an intense, timely and entertaining look at the gangster rap pioneers.

Director Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen might lack an unbiased perspective — he got his start directing music videos alongside Dr. Dre before directing Ice Cube in the landmark Friday — but he gets why N.W.A. was so important to the history of rap and music in general. Too often biopics like Get on Up are too preoccupied separating the man/men from the legend, but Gray strikes a solid compromise of humanizing the group without devaluing their impact.

Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

For the generation (like me) who grew up listening to N.W.A. and can still recite every lyric to hits like ‘Gangsta Gangsta,’ ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Parental Discretion Iz Advised,’ this is a must-see. There won’t be another film this year that so easily takes you down memory lane recalling the soundtrack of your youth.

Good luck trying to catch yourself from mouthing the words as the songs are played throughout Compton. Gray neatly makes all the right choices for the ideal timing to drop the various songs in the N.W.A. catalog.

Likewise, a generation reared on Drake, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj can learn the origins of rap’s most incendiary group. N.W.A. gave a ferocious voice to an underrepresented demographic that angrily voiced their frustration with law enforcement officials for their brutality against blacks in the early 90s. Considering incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore, the film offers a unique dynamic as a part historical/part contemporary account of life for minorities in America.Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

In the film’s most gripping scene, Gray perfectly encapsulates N.W.A. — and likely a growing sentiment among a population that’s become more distrustful of law enforcement — where the group defiantly ignores threats of arrest to perform their hit ‘F*ck the Police.’ While being carted off in handcuffs, the group members exchange smiles and laughs knowing they would not be censored.

Gray, who should be on Marvel Studios’ short-list for black directors to helm Black Panther, neatly follows the modern superhero origin format. Drug-dealer Eazy-E (a terrific Jason Mitchell) is looking for a safer way to make a living and agrees to team with dynamic rapper Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. a dead ringer for his father) and DJ Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins, Non-Stop).

Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

Adding Dre’s collaborator DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Eazy’s longtime friend, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the group dubs themselves N.W.A. and alongside collaborator/songwriter The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) finds a passionate fanbase eager to hang on their every word. The cast inhabit N.W.A. well and their performances are convincing even if the resemblance isn’t perfect.

Upon aligning with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), the group sets out to conquer the music industry without radio airplay thanks to their profanity-laced and misogynistic lyrics.

Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

Given the bitter history between the group and Heller, it would have been easy to simply demonize Heller and blame him for everything that went wrong with N.W.A. But to the filmmakers’ credit and the strength of Giamatti’s performance, Heller isn’t wholly demonized and is portrayed with more depth than simply being the Yoko Ono of the rap world.

Even with a 147 min. run time, screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) are hard-pressed to cover every aspect of the group members’ 27-year history and influence. As expected, the film loses some momentum upon Cube’s departure and the members go their separate ways.

Despite the backdrop of tense relations with the LAPD and the Rodney King beating, Berloff and Herman’s script isn’t all about the gritty street life. The film has a surprising amount of humor throughout, but none better than the sequence with Ice Cube’s diss track “No Vaseline.”Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

From a narrative perspective, Dre has the most interesting second act with his partnership with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) in forming Death Row Records. Taylor is an immense presence and his towering physique and ability to shift from calm to psychotic makes him a threatening, unpredictable wildcard.

The Death Row chapter, which really could have been a movie all its own, is rushed through, but the film does work in some fun cameos from Snoop Doggy Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac (Marcc Rose). Unfortunately, that means MC Ren and DJ Yella get seriously shortchanged.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow, served as executive producers so some softening of the rough edges of the group’s history was to be expected. Surprisingly, for the most part, the film doesn’t shy away from the less idealistic portrayals of the group — particularly their rampant misogyny — while also not overly glamorizing the rapper lifestyle.Film Title: Straight Outta Compton

Still, it was disappointing that Dre’s 1991 assault on TV host Dee Barnes wasn’t included. No doubt as in the post-Ray Rice era, the act would come across too heinous and despicable. Likely it would have made it difficult for onscreen Dre to be redeemed nearly as neatly as the real life Dre.

In one telling scene, Ice Cube says ‘man, we left a lot of good records on the table.’ For N.W.A. fans what could have been is the harshest reality, but Straight Outta Compton is a fitting tribute to the world’s most dangerous group and easily one of my favorite films of the year.

(Clockwise from top left) DJ YELLA, ICE CUBE, MC Ren, DR. DRE, COREY HAWKINS as Dr. Dre, ALDIS HODGE as MC Ren, JASON MITCHELL as Eazy-E, O?SHEA JACKSON, JR. as Ice Cube and NEIL BROWN, JR. as DJ Yella on the set of ?Straight Outta Compton?. Taking us back to where it all began, the film tells the true story of how these cultural rebels?armed only with their lyrics, swagger, bravado and raw talent?stood up to the authorities that meant to keep them down and formed the world?s most dangerous group, N.W.A.
(Clockwise from top left) DJ YELLA, ICE CUBE, MC Ren, DR. DRE, COREY HAWKINS as Dr. Dre, ALDIS HODGE as MC Ren, JASON MITCHELL as Eazy-E, O’SHEA JACKSON, JR. as Ice Cube and NEIL BROWN, JR. as DJ Yella on the set of “Straight Outta Compton.”

 Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Studios

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  • Pierre V. Mooney

    To be truthful, I do not like gangster movies. I know they are the reality but think it only encourages the Brothers who have lost their humanity to engage a negative mentality. Brother Singleton did a great one that although “a work of art” has sent many Brothers on the path into the dark side. Yes, I know that SUPER FLY like and the other BLACK EXPLOITATION films have produced many big BLACK film stars by giving them a chance to show their talent. But their themes have sent more lost BROTHERS into more negative behaviors and drugs. I prefer stick with the hope that Brother Perry gives us in his work and efforts to to help minorities participate more in all aspects to motion picture industry.

  • keith

    hmm. Well this film is critic proof no matter what. I want to guess 75 mil opening? Im glad i saved my money to see it. I wonder if i should wait a weekend to see. I pray to God their isnt any shootings or b.s that happen back here a few weeks ago or in the batman movie. Hopefully thugs( of all races, THUG does equate to black people dammit!!! just letting people know), “lone gunmen” , hate groups, etc. dont use this movie to make a point. You brought me back to just thinking about the few singles you mentioned Jeff. Im trying to get the fellas to come with me but alas, it look like a solo journey.

  • This one is much less gangsters than a music group trying to make their voices heard. And the end shows how they’ve become businessmen and entrepreneurs

  • No one’s rolling with you to see it?!? Awww man!

  • Eric Davis

    For once, Lyles gets it right with an accurate review of a standout urban film. He must have finally realized that he too, is an African-American male, no matter how out of touch and privileged his background is. Trust and believe, he was enlightened just as much as white America was when seeing “Straight Outta Compton.” To him, this was a foreign movie with subtitles. Anyone Black who thought “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins” was a good film and had the foolish sense to actually write a good review for that film needs to be forced to watch “Birth of a Nation” with their eyelids taped back to their heads a thousand times. Glad you’re not still selling out, Lyles. One can only pray that this new trend of yours continues.

  • The best thing about other people’s opinions you can actually choose which ones worth caring about.

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  • fred

    What man, you don’t like gangster movies. So does that mean you don’t like classics like the Godfather films, Goodfellas, New Jack City, Scarface, American Gangster, The Departed and Menace II Society among others, come on now my friend lol. But seriously you should see “Straight Outta Compton”, I promise you it’s not a gangsta movie at all bro. It’s just a film about 5 young brothers growing up in the hood and trying to make something out of their selves and going through fascinating situations, trust me. It’s not so much glamorizing street life as it’s glamorizing the rise, fall, trial and tribulations of NWA and the people who surround them. Just like the great “Boyz-N- Tha Hood” humanizes it’s characters, this outstanding film/biopic does the same thing, trust me.

  • fred

    Those fellas who didn’t come with you to see it are dumb, because they missed out on one hell of a movie.

  • fred

    Great review Jeff, SOC is definitely the best film I have seen in a while man. I’m going to see it again this week. You’re right bro Gray should definitely be on the top of Marvel’s list for candidates to direct “Black Panther”, and from what I’ve been hearing I think he is. Remember Gray was also one of the early candidates in the running to direct “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, but he dropped out of the running to helm “Straight Outta Compton”. The glowing reviews,warm receptions by movie audiences and overall success should do nothing but put Gray in an higher regard to Marvel and make him an even stronger candidate to direct “Black Panther”. Being that Gray and Marvel already have a history of talking to each other, that should also strengthen his chance to land the directing gig. On a side note I think Gray, John Singleton, Antoine Faqua, Steve McQueen and Reginald Hudlin are the strongest candidates that come to mind in terms of possible directors for BP.

  • keith

    well just saw it and one of my friends saw it on his own. I cant lie jeff, 3/4 of the movie was 9.. that last act and ending.. WTF??? was weak as hell. Gray needed to end or i should say transition that one a little better. I see Dre got handled with kid gloves, cube and easy were on point from their side of it. Yet overall I would and will watch again. I love the music and the concert scenes, the importance of them showing that police brutality, and why cube left. Yet.. i feel like i seen and learn more from more in depth interviews, music, articles, and documentaries. 2.5 hours just dont do them or acts as memorable as them justice. I feel like they need a whole tv season to roll out the things people wanted to see and know or remember.

    Man… I thought i gave it you rough about the amazing spider man 2 lol. shi ttt

  • keith

    my money it HAS to be huddlin. His revival of BP is kind of the basis of the character i believe. It brought his orgin to modern retelling that can be clean on the screen. He said he even wrote it as such. If he isnt the director he need to be a major producer/screenwriter on it. I think i would love Fuqua screen tough( for what he did with denzel and the equalizer) and huddlin writing .. blockbuster!

  • Me too. Definitely heavy in contention for my favorite of the year.
    I’d figure Gray would do a bang-up job on Panther. Who would you like to see?

  • Yeah, Dre definitely got a kinder edit.
    The film did a better job than interviews/articles conveying their bond and the affection they had for each other.
    Death Row would seem like a better TV season candidate though;-)
    Hey man, it’s all good. We don’t have to agree on it all 🙂

  • keith

    That is true. The movie humanized their bond more than the VH1 type of specials could do. Now that im older and can see they had general real remorse with easy passing that makes it all more real. Hopefully easy passing woke more people up about that disease. Magic kicked it off, sadly easy didnt make it. It just feels weird that i am now at an older age than easy passing. There just out they 20s, it seems weird. Now it all fits in how Chuck D said they were nice kids in an interview. A silly interviewer as chuck did they scare him, he was no i was a grown ass man at the time lol. Hell we influenced. I love when history gets to be told and not changed too much. We will never have hip hop being able to that free with it variety again. Or noncommercial. The industry people have mined all the soul out of each region and messed it up. I listen or buy only the rarest of mainstream acts. Honestly thanks to youtube, internet, you dont even have to buy a cd anymore. I still havent bought the new kendrick album yet. That will be my next buy. Im more into reggae, jazz/beats now than hip hop. Times change, but nothing gets me up more than a great artist coming up. The last guy i felt that way was a young Kanye, not this version of him lol

  • Pierre V. Mooney

    Obviously the film is one that hits a chord with BLACK MEN. I am sorry I will not be able to see until I get get to the STATES as it will not show overseas in many places as there is no audience for it (no one who wants to hear its message). I guess that should tell us something. We do know ICE CUBE and Dr. Dre have become quite rich. But many of the Bothers who got the message are in prison or not with us anymore. Motion Pictures are works of art they have positive influences and negative influences on their audiences. I certainly agree with Jeff the best thing about other peoples’ opinions is we can chose which ones are worth caring about.

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