There’s no denying the increased racial tension that has come about these past few years. Incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the deaths of other victims like Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, the majority of whom died as a result of police brutality, have all resulted in considerably high amounts of unrest across the country, showing that the racism of the past is unfortunately still around today. So it’s fitting that a film like this comes out that tells the story of a group of individuals who dealt with the exact same thing in California in the late 80’s but stood up to it, making them prophets of their time. This serves as the basis for ‘Straight Outta Compton’, the true story of, as described by the poster, ‘the most dangerous group in the world’, N.W.A.; Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. Produced by Cube and Dre and directed by F. Gary Gray, who had previously directed Cube in 1995’s ‘Friday’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is an energized and emotionally-charged biopic that provides a truly captivating portrait of the popular but controversial hip-hop group. Sure it may not cover all of the beats of the considerably large history of N.W.A. but what is featured here all comes together nicely in one hard-hitting musical biopic that is quite relevant given the current circumstances.
In 1986, young Compton residents O’Shea Jackson AKA Ice Cube (played by Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Andre Young AKA Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eric Wright AKA Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) traverse through life in the violent California neighborhood, constantly having to deal with things like gang violence and police brutality. Along with their friends Antoine Carraby AKA DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Lorenzo Patterson AKA MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the five decide to form a new hip-hop group, N.W.A., as part of Eazy-E’s new label Ruthless Records. After an early success with their single ‘Boyz-n-the-Hood’, the group hires Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) as their manager and the group achieves even greater success, along with attracting much controversy (especially from law enforcement), with their debut album ‘Straight Outta Compton’, inspired by their personal experiences in the hood. But as time goes on, both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre start to suspect that they’re being played by Heller and the two of them end up leaving the group to pursue solo careers, with the latter forming Death Row Records with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), while also dealing with the pressures of their newfound stardom.
Some have stated that the history of N.W.A. is so extensive that it is capable of producing at least a whole trilogy of films focusing on the group’s formation, solo ventures, and the decline/death of Eazy-E, respectively. Instead of going that route, that history is condensed into a two and a half hour film. Obviously that does mean that certain elements of the story were cut like some of the group members’ unethical actions, most infamously Dr. Dre as evident through the recent controversy surrounding his abusive behavior towards women. But even at two and a half hours long and given what’s there in the film and what isn’t, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ more than succeeds in regards to recreating what life was like for the members of N.W.A. in the late 80’s and early 90’s, including being witnesses to the Rodney King beating. Scenes of the subsequent LA riots and other various moments including the death of Dre’s brother (even if it’s only a minor part of the overall story) and of course the death of Eazy-E have a major emotional drive to them, resulting in a film that is just full of energy even in parts when it sort of drags, which is mostly during the film’s latter half after Cube and Dre have already left the group. This is a case of a musical biopic where it is more about the atmosphere than it is about the music and in the case of N.W.A., it was definitely the right route to go.
The most notable aspect about the film’s cast is that Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays his father in the film. While some view this as nepotism, at the end of the day there really isn’t anyone better for the role. He 100% looks and acts just like his father. As for the other two main leads, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell, they may not be the offspring of their respective characters but they are equally as excellent in capturing the attitudes, the passion, and mannerisms of Dr. Dree and Eazy-E, respectively, with Mitchell in particular really standing out due to the fierceness of his performance and the film really makes an effort to pay tribute to ‘the godfather of Gangsta rap’. At the end of the day, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E are the three primary protagonists of the film. So while MC Ren and DJ Yella were just as important as the other members of the group, in this film they are generally overshadowed in favor of the film placing a greater focus on the primary trio. With that said, though, Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge are also solid in their performances as is Paul Giamatti, as usual, as N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller. And even though this film is produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and even when considering all of the stuff that was left out, it never really feels like the film tries to 100% glorify all of the things that its protagonists did during this time. For what could be viewed and labeled as a ‘vanity project’, it really isn’t that vain.
At just 147 minutes long, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ admittedly has a lot to cover in regards to telling the lengthy history of N.W.A. Obviously not everything was addressed in this film and it could even be argued that it tries to do a bit too much in its given runtime. But even with that in mind, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ still stands strong thanks to F. Gary Gray’s solid direction and the talented cast portraying the members of N.W.A, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as the late Eazy-E. Even though the film is produced by former N.W.A. members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the film never really feels like a vanity project as it even has the balls to highlight some of the flaws of its protagonists. But at the end of the day, the key reason why ‘Straight Outta Compton’ works as well as it does is the unfortunate fact that a lot of the things that the members of N.W.A. endured in their time are still occurring today. Just like last year with ‘Selma’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is a timely release that showcases how far we as a society still have to go as a result of our prejudiced past. It just so happens to come as the result of an energetic and emotionally charged musical biopic about the history of a group of individuals from one of the toughest neighborhoods in California who came together at the right time and forever changed the hip-hop genre.