Straight Outta Compton
Directed by F. Gary Gray. Starring Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Keith Stanfield, Paul Giamatti, Orlando Brown, Allen Maldonado, Dean Cameron, Demetrius Grosse, Tate Ellington, Alexandra Shipp, Ina-Alice Kopp, Bryan Casserly, Yatoya Toy, F. Gary Gray, Marcc Rose, Rob Nagle, Simon Rhee, Larry Sullivan, Keith Powers, Karen Ann Cabrera. Written by Andrea Berloff, Jonathan Herman.
It’s rare that a biopic that covers events from 25 years ago feels as timely and relevant as those real-life events it contains.
But that’s exactly what we have in Straight Outta Compton, which covers the birth and early years of the rap group NWA and particularly members Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube.
Given the current climate of police brutality in the US, Ice Cube’s “Fuck tha Police” mantra – created after the group was hassled during a recording session, and responsible for getting NWA arrested in Detroit – feels as relevant now as it did during the 1992 L.A. riots.
There’s a lot to love here: two, maybe three breakout performances, a wonderful soundtrack that incorporates a wealth of NWA material along with hits from 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and others, and a number of memorable sequences that work perfectly in their own self-contained spurts.
But there’s also a familiar feeling to the proceedings that seems to boil down a fascinating, far-reaching storyline – and a fascinating period of modern culture – into a standard-order biopic that follows a well-worn path.
Maybe it’s just me, but when this NWA biopic hits all the same emotional notes as last year’s James Brown biopic, which covered the same beats as Ray, Walk the Line, 8 Mile, and so on, a feeling of déjà vu sets in. This material shouldn’t feel so familiar, especially when we’re so aware of the real-life outcome.
The film appeals, I think, to both to fans of NWA, who know the story and appreciate a return to the events herein, and those who may only have cursory knowledge of the late 80s-early 90s the hip hop scene and are given an easily-digestible overview of key figures and events. (Familiar
It begins in Compton, of course, where gun-toting drug dealers hijack school buses to teach kids a lesson, and aspiring DJ Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves the comfort of his mother’s home to pursue a career in the music industry.
Hawkins is engaging as Dre, the central character in the film, but the characterization feels whitewashed. Given that Dre is a producer of Straight Outta Compton, you can expect the film to gloss over the violence towards women, but does the character have to be so bland? From the moment his mother slaps him in one of the film’s early scenes, Dre is given the moral high ground throughout the entire movie.
Faring better is Jason Mitchell, who brings a low-key Hustle & Flow-era Terrence Howard quality to his portrayal of Eazy E. Mitchell is a revelation, and E’s tragic storyline – before dying of AIDS, he watched NWA crumble around him – is the real heart of the film.
But the real knockout performance here is O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his father: the younger Ice Cube is indistinguishable from his dad, not just physically but also in diction and attitude and general larger-than-life presence.
Cube, despite his later on-screen Hollywood persona, was the rage-filled voice behind NWA and the one responsible for both their initial success, and upon exiting the group, their quick decline. It’s his first film role, but Jackson Jr. nails it – and while the elder Cube, like Dre, is one of the film’s producers, the movie doesn’t shy away from his rough edges.
Jerry Heller, the old, white, Jewish manager of this explosive all-black group, makes for too-easy a target as a villain, and ultimately the film doesn’t seem to give him a fair shake. Paul Giamatti puts a lot into the performance, however, and nearly succeeds at creating a tragic Shylock-esque characterization.
I would also say the same for Suge Knight (played by R. Marcos Taylor), portrayed as a violent psychopath who assaults a man over a parking spot and arranges dog fights in a recording studio (the film stops short, however, of exploring the longstanding rumors of Knight’s involvement in the death of Tupac Shakur, though the famed rapper appears briefly in the film.)
Of course, Knight’s hit-and-run murder during the filming of a Straight Outta Compton promo would seem to validate his portrayal in the movie.
Despite the storytelling flaws, Straight Outta Compton is supremely entertaining. It runs a snappy 2.5 hours and left me wanting more: more 2Pac and Suge Knight and Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube in Hollywood, Dre with 50 Cent and Eminem and making billions with Apple. The continuing saga of hip hop life after NWA would make for a great TV series.