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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo credit: Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Studios