In 1988, N.W.A released the album “Straight Outta Compton.” The album’s titular first track opened with the spoken line “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” and ended with the bold full stop, “Damn that sh*t was dope!” In the four minutes in between, NWA redefined more than just hip hop as their fiery controversial lyrics left a lasting impact on popular culture. Fast forward to 2015 and director F. Gary Gray’s biopic Straight Outta Compton is bookended by the same two lines. In its two and half hour running time the cinematic counterpart doesn’t quite have the same groundbreaking impact, but it is an entertaining insight into one of music’s pivotal moments and its more famed characters.
For those not so well versed in hip hop history, NWA (N***az Wit Attitudes) were a group that pioneered gangsta rap on the West Coast of America. Made up of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, MC Ren and Eazy E, NWA were the first group to bring the harsh and aggressive reality of black youth culture from the ghetto into the mainstream. The volatile unit took the nation by storm, bringing in adulation and outrage in equal measure. Their influence caught the attention of the nation and, later on, the FBI. NWA’s legacy and influence spread so far that 15 years on as a white teenage boy from a leafy middle class suburb in England, I could still revel in their exciting world.
Gray’s biggest task is shifting through the considerable amount of potential material for his film’s limited running time. Luckily, he’s aided by producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s wife. The trio of producers have the benefit of providing firsthand stories to help guide the film’s narrative.
Certainly with Cube and Dre’s guiding hands, Straight Outta Compton is able to depict intimate moments. The group’s formative years, which take us through each member’s distinctive backgrounds, are filled with these gems of insight. One scene depicts the group’s first ever recording session, where Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is coaxed into rapping. E adorns his famous sunglasses and Matthew Libatique’s camera slices the room in half as if drawing the line between musical persona and reality. We’re seeing history in the making. It’s moments like these that provide the untold history fans crave and the context casual movie goers require.
One of Gray’s biggest successes is in depicting the electric buzz that surrounds NWA’s explosive start. When Ice Cube and Dr. Dre first perform in a small Compton night club you can sense the excitement as Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) thunders out lyrics about gangsters, shooting and life in the hood. This furore peaks when we see the group’s run in with the Detroit police. While performing to a packed out crowd the group ignore police warnings and play their most controversial hit, “Fuck Tha Poilce,” promptly leading to their arrests and a subsequent riot from their adoring crowds.
NWA’s cultural significance is most tellingly portrayed when the film brings parallels back to recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore and elsewhere. The band’s lyrics and outlook are shaped by the police’s racist treatment towards them and their families, but it’s not until we see the infamous beating of Rodney King and subsequent LA Riots do we see how prescient and relevant NWA’s legacy was. The real shame is that over twenty years on NWA’s lyrics are still worryingly relevant; “A young n***a got it bad cause I’m brown/And not the other color so police think// they have the authority to kill a minority.”
Straight Outta Compton has a great story but inspired casting gives the film an edge. The film focuses on Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) entwined lives, a fact that’s likely to aggrieve fans of overlooked members MC Ren and DJ Yella. Nevertheless, these are three fascinating characters with very different personas and each held my attention throughout.
Of course Ice Cube’s depiction is aided to no end by the fact his dead ringer of a son plays him. Rather than nepotism, Cube, Jr. performs on merit with all the mannerisms, style and bravado of his father. While Mitchell and Hawkins don’t have the blood connection to their roles, both fully embody the big personas in their hands. Mitchell in particular succeeds in capturing Eazy E’s swagger and famously high pitched tones. The other key player in NWA’s saga is their divisive manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Giamatti plays the part of the conniving and truculent Heller well, albeit in the actor’s usual brand of loud brashness. It’s not a subtle performance but one that’s in tune with NWA’s bombastic tale.
The film’s thumping first half fails to keep up the momentum and purpose for its second. As with most groundbreaking acts, NWA’s moment of glory was fleeting; a large part of the film is spent seeing its members emerge from the group’s messy demise. Eazy E’s decline and Ice Cube’s swift move to movies aren’t the most exhilarating stories, so it’s left to Dr. Dre’s chaotic partnership with Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) at Deathrow Records to support the running time. For fans there a plenty of satisfying cameos—including Tupac (Marcc Rose) and Snoop Dog (Keith Stanfield)—and nods to famous songs, but it seems like a cheap ploy to keep up the pace. Gray uses Eazy E’s illness for a satisfying emotional conclusion to NWA’s story; it’s just a shame the film meanders so much getting there.
For me, Straight Outta Compton was huge nostalgic joy that hit all the right notes, depicting NWA with style and strength. But even those who are totally new to the torrid history of west coast gangsta rap will be hard pushed not to be swept up in the proceedings. The latter half doesn’t quite keep up the pace and the influence of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as producers probably filtered the truth. Nevertheless, looking back on the film, I can’t help but turn to the words of NWA:
“Damn, that sh*t was dope.”
Movie Verdict: Win