"You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge." - Eazy E
Straight Outta Compton is a hip hop biopic, about the rise and fall of N.W.A., written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and directed by F. Gary Gray whose previous work includes The Negotiator, The Italian Job, and Friday. The movie stars O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr, Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates, Jr., and Paul Giamatti.
A group of teenagers from Compton in the mid 1980's decide to make something of themselves by forming a rap group and creating music filled with tales of living life as a minority in South Central Los Angeles. After they gain notoriety for their brash lyrics and rough style, they bring on manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to take their game to the next level although, before they even realize it, the added fame and money begins to cause a divide within the ranks of the group. With everyone from uneducated reporters to the F.B.I. trying to bring them down, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella (Hawkins, Mitchell, Jackson, Hodge, and Brown) must find a way to survive a next level game they were unprepared to play.
I was so happy when this movie was first announced and dreamed of the day I could hear songs like Gangstsa Gangsta, Express Yourself, We Want Eazy, and Straight Outta Compton blasting from movie theater speakers while Raider jackets and Compton hats filled the screen. With the help of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube on the creative side, F. Gary Gray brings this story to life about as well as anyone ever could. N.W.A. was a huge part of some of my most formative years so, knowing their story forwards and backwards, I was fully prepared to take in every detail and look for key moments that I remembered from those days when the Compton sound ruled boom boxes and radios everywhere.
After finally watching the final product, I am happy to report that this movie nails just about every aspect of the early days of the group and their shotgun rise to fame. From the beginning, Gray takes you right into the middle of gang warfare and drug deals all from the perspective of kids smart enough to know better but not having any other options presented to them. The story of these five young men is just as relevant today as it was then and there are so many lessons to take from what they went through, you quickly begin to realize how things might not have changed very much over the last 25 years.
Gray doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the racism, violence, police brutality, and discrimination that ruled south central L.A. during the same era as the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. We see reporters assuming the members of the group are weak minded kids and they quickly shrink into the background when they realize just how wrong they are. On the other side of that coin, we see how police officers refuse to back down and force their will, often violently, for no reason other than because they can. Through all of this, Gray keeps the group centered in an us-against-the-world mentality and uses that strength, even when the group eventually falls apart, to show just how determined they were to change their situation no matter what the cost.
You would think all of this heavy handed drama might weigh down a film like this, but there is just enough humor and action sprinkled in to keep things rolling at a nice pace. I was afraid the 147 minute run time might be a bit too much, but there are so many great stories to tell, I almost wish this had been made into a trilogy instead of a single feature. Even so, I did feel like the film struggled a little bit as it had to rush through the Death Row vs Ruthless era and a steady stream of characters make token appearances just because they have to be in there somewhere. Speaking of the peripheral characters, it must have been really hard to fill some of the more iconic roles like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac because the end results are almost laughable which is an interesting contrast to just how spot on each member of N.W.A. is brought to life.
I'm so glad Gray ended up going with O'Shea Jackson Jr. over any other possible option as he absolutely nails the part of Ice Cube who, if you couldn't tell or didn't already know, is his dad in real life. Between his performance and Jason Mitchell's take on Eric "Eazy E" Wright, it was so hard to tell it was actors playing the parts and not the actual guys up there on the screen spittin' lyrics and tossin' back 40's. Given the material and subject matter, I doubt if either of them will ever be considered for little gold trophies, although there is no doubt Jackson and Mitchell, two relative newcomers, deserve all the accolades and respect that happens to come their way thanks to this film.
Another standout among the cast is Paul Giamatti who bravely takes on the role of Jerry Heller, the despised manager of Ruthless Records who is basically given credit for destroying the group and screwing them out of their money, music rights, and just about anything else he could get his hands on. There is such a duplicitous nature to his character and Giamatti effortlessly takes Heller back and forth from savior and saint to traitor and tyrant sometimes within the blink of an eye. If you're not careful, you'll find yourself believing he actually had the group's best interests at heart which, in a very twisted way, he probably believed it as well and that is the real genius behind the actor's performance. Honestly, I believe this could be his best work to date.
Let's get back to the music for a minute. Oh, the music.
Along with classic N.W.A. hits, the soundtrack is filled with everything from Parliament to Craig Mack and just about everything in between. N.W.A. literally changed the music industry by holding up a middle finger to everything and every one who told them they wouldn't ever amount to anything more than the gangsters and thugs they so proudly portrayed. Hearing their music, the music that inspired them, and the music that was inspired by them was an absolute treat and it was hard for me not to jump out of my seat and sing along during every concert scene and recording session. If you're not familiar with the N.W.A. sound, please brace yourself before jumping in as, even today, it is some of the most rugged and raw hip hop ever put on wax*. One of the moments I really loved was the opening scene which shows Dre laying on the floor, headphones on, and surrounded by all the classic albums that eventually shaped his signature sound. Such a cool bit of imagery that helped to define and honor what the movie is all about. The music.
*Put on wax means recorded on to a vinyl disc for playback.
Straight Outta Compton is an important movie to see whether you are a fan of their music or not. The themes of oppression, racism, defiance, and the reality of the streets are as relevant today as they were back then and F. Gary Gray has framed all of it within a narrative that is as entertaining as it is educational. This is no after school special so strap yourself in and get ready for a ride through a chapter of American history when a group of young men altered the landscape of music and culture by breaking down racial barriers and stereotypes while creating some of the most memorable songs of their generation.
"Damn, that s**t was dope!" - Dr. Dre