What an awesome surprise Straight Outta Compton is. If you think it’s just another Behind The Music TV-quality retrospective of famous musicians, you’re sorely mistaken. This film has grit, universal appeal and the conviction to tell the story of rap group N.W.A. with startling candor, from vast success to internal dissension to heartbreak.
In 1986, N.W.A. (an acronym that cannot be explained in print) burst on the scene with their breakthrough album Straight Outta Compton. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” founding member Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) says and, true to form, the group’s daily lives surrounded by gangs, drugs, abusive cops, and other dangers are inspiration for N.W.A.’s music. After the release of the hit “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” the group, including Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), is signed by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) to make a record. Hit songs include “Fuck tha Police,” “Express Yourself,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” the titular “Straight Outta Compton” and more. Police and authority figures hate their antiestablishment messages, but they’re a huge hit, ultimately selling three million records.
And just when they’re at the height of their fame, when the women and acclaim and notoriety can’t get any better — boom! It all comes crashing down. Why? Because of the one thing people covet regardless of whether they’re black, brown, white, yellow, or purple: money.
What’s solid about director F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job) film is that it’s patient enough to slowly introduce characters and develop them as people, not caricatures, giving insight into the world of rap music. We’re taken by the danger, discord, poverty, and desperation members of the Compton community inside Los Angeles share, and better understand why these young men are angry and searching for a way out.
The film’s real highlight isn’t the music or story — it’s the acting. O’Shea Jackson is Ice Cube’s real-life son and he gives a strong, vigorous performance, as does Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, a man who wanted to focus on music and had little regard for the nonsense that surrounded him, especially after he went into business with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The real standout, however, is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. The role requires huge swings in terms of emotion and bravado, and Mitchell pulls off each moment wonderfully. It’s a long shot, but it’d be great if Mitchell earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination — yes, he’s that good.
Similar to how the Blaxploitation film movement gave African-Americans a voice onscreen in the late ’60s and early ’70s, N.W.A. exposed truths about life in the ’hood and started the “gangsta rap” style of profanity and violence in song lyrics. How honest the film truly is only the participants know (and note Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are co-producers of the film), but Straight Outta Compton the movie feels quite raw and quite genuine — just like N.W.A.’s music.