You don’t have to be a fan of N.W.A. to appreciate “Straight Outta Compton,” an excellent biography that works on multiple levels. This is a film fans of the “reality rap” super group will appreciate, but also a film those who are unfamiliar with the group will find interesting as well.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton” follows the rise of N.W.A. – Ice Cube (O’ Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) – in the late 1980s.
It moves from the streets of Compton, Calif., up to N.W.A. becoming one of the most infamous group of rappers, whose honest lyrics not only painted a picture of what it was like to grow up in their neighborhood, but also made them a target of law enforcement – including the FBI.
On the surface, “Straight Outta Compton” plays as a standard musical bio, complete with the record producer (Paul Giamatti) who causes a rift that ultimately splits the friendship and the group, but there is more at work here.
Gray captures the rough background that shaped the group, with effective scenes that capture hardship as well as movies like “Boyz N the Hood” – the film that would launch Ice Cube’s acting career.
“Straight Outta Compton” is also an effective social commentary showing how far we’ve come in terms of racial relations and how far we still have to go. As some scenes unfolded, I couldn’t help but think of Ferguson, Mo., and the similarities.
Gray stuffs a lot in the nearly 150-minute film, spending just as much time on the aftermath of the group’s break-up and its cultural impact beyond N.W.A. – from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre branching out as actors and music producers to how Eazy-E’s death from AIDs at age 31 served as a cautionary tale for promiscuity.
All this material wouldn’t work without a strong cast to bring it to life. The cast, outside of Giamatti, is largely unknown, but memorable – especially Jackson, Ice Cube’s real-life son, and Mitchell, who gives Eazy-E a vulnerability that makes the final act much more impactful.
“Straight Outta Compton” doesn’t paint the characters as perfect, although the criticisms of misogyny and homophobia that followed the group during its heyday are not fully explored – something I wish the film would have addressed more.
Still, in a year that’s already seen the Brian Wilson bio picture “Love and Mercy” and the haunting Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy,” “Straight Outta Compton” proves to be just as memorable as those films.