Last year, the movie Nas: Time Is Illmatic focused on the making of the rap album Illmatic, which marked its 25th anniversary and is considered a very seminal recording for hip hop music, particularly hardcore rap on the east coast. This film does a similar thing with the making of the album Straight Outta Compton, which this August 8 marked its 27th anniversary and is also considered a seminal recording for hip hop music, and was foundational for west coast rap artists, popularizing so-called gangsta rap.
Straight Outta Compton was the debut album for the rap group N.W.A., or Niggaz Wit Attitudes. The group consisted of five members, nicknamed Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. The film, written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, centers on the three leading members, as they are inspired and challenged by the tough and impoverished conditions surrounding them and as they struggle to maintain their artistry and integrity.
Corey Hawkins stars as Andre Young aka Dr. Dre, or just Dre. He comes up with the music. He's also an accomplished and highly-skilled DJ. O'Shea Jackson, Jr. co-stars as O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube, or just Cube. He comes up with the lyrics and is a vocalist. Jason Mitchell also stars as Eric Wright aka Eazy-E, the other lead vocalist.
Despite insistence from his mother and the mother of his child, Dre pursues a career in music. The first time we see Dre, he's lying on the ground, swirled by a sea of album covers with headphones and his ears and mind are lost in some R&B song. Given that, it seems he's driven by a pure and sheer love of music. He doesn't play an instrument. He instead makes beats by scratching on a turntable.
The first time we see Cube, he's sitting on a school bus writing lyrics. It's not clear if it's R&B lyrics or simple poetry. Presumably, it's rap lyrics. Rap isn't a style he invented. He seems to be aware of it in 1986 and is embracing it as a means of expression, as he faces down gang bangers in Compton, California. He's already friends with Dre, so joining him in his pursuit of music is a no-brainer.
Dre knows in order to get started, he'll need money to pay for time in a recording studio and for people to produce a demo or a single. In order to get that starter cash, he asks his other friend Eazy-E or just Eazy because he's a known drug dealer and so-called gang banger.
Mitchell gets the first bit of real comedy in this film when he's pressured by the group to be a vocalist and he awkwardly performs, obviously not knowing what he's doing and needing guidance from Dre. He isn't initially driven by a sheer love of music. He initially seems to do this out of loyalty or dedication, a thirst for money or a simple desire to get away from his dangerous drug-dealing life.
Oscar-nominee Paul Giamatti (Sideways and Cinderella Man) co-stars as Jerry Heller, the music manager who hears N.W.A.'s demo song "Boyz n the Hood" and wants to work with them. He sees the talent in them and helps to land them their first label deal with Priority Records and with Bryan Turner, played by Tate Ellington. He particularly courts Eazy, singling him out as the de facto leader of the group.
While it's not quite the same, there is a vibe that feels very similar to Giamatti's recent role in Love & Mercy. Giamatti played a kind of music manager for the pop artist Brian Wilson of the band The Beach Boys. It may be a different genre of music, but Giamatti's character Jerry comes across the same, a seeming protective daddy-figure who might be a bit manipulative and exploitative as time goes on.
That, and some other things, make this film unspool as a typical music biopic. It hits familiar beats when it comes to stories about artists getting properly represented or properly compensated for their work, the struggle to have their work received in the right context, if received at all, the price of fame, the price of sudden wealth, abuse and addictions.
There aren't that many biopics about hip hop artists. Aside from documentaries like Nas: Time Is Illmatic, the only one of recent memory is Notorious (2009) about east coast rapper Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. There's quite a few biopics about black artists, jazz musicians and R&B singers. A scene toward the end depicting the group's in-fighting and eventual separation is reminiscent of Get On Up, the James Brown story.
Director F. Gary Gray doesn't give this film any kind of quirk or try anything different structurally or cinematically as Tate Taylor did. Gary directs this film in a straight-forward manner, as we follow these young African-American men for nearly a decade. Gary's camera, however, is wondrously fluid. Actually, it's like a bird in that it floats into scenes and so easily swirls around its subjects.
Thanks to that and the amazing performances from the actors playing Dre, Cube and Eazy, we are comfortably floated into this world of hardcore rap and drug-dealing, as if we've always been there. Mitchell who plays Eazy is particularly effective. He can be tough but also charming and vulnerable. Jackson who plays Cube is obviously the son of the real-life Ice Cube and has the same magnetic, screen presence and the ability to command a stage and a microphone, but arguably has more sex appeal than his dad, even though it's never applied here.
This movie also comes at a very relevant time. Like with this year's Oscar-winning film Selma, recent, current events play in this movie's favor. One of N.W.A.'s most infamous songs, the song that put them on the map and a part of history books was the controversial track titled "'Fuck Tha Police." It was a song protesting police brutality and racial profiling in the Compton area.
Given recent events regarding young African-American men and police, such as in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Baltimore, Maryland, this film's tackling of that song, what inspired it and the aftermath of it, is no doubt extremely relevant and topical. It shows how on the pulse N.W.A. was and how their music truly was a reflection of the frustration and unfairness those young men saw on a regular basis. As such, the group deserves respect.
However, I feel as though there is a bit of irony that is lost in that. Obviously, there is no defense for police brutality, which is what Selma depicted. Yet, this film doesn't depict brutality. Because this story is based on real events, it probably can't if none of the characters experienced it personally. What this film does depict is racial profiling. Now, depending on how it's used, an argument can be made for racial profiling being a useful tool.
As portrayed in this film, it's always awful because every single member of the Los Angeles Police Department, or LAPD, is depicted here as always being super racist and super bigoted against rap music. I understand that the film is told from N.W.A.'s point-of-view, much like American Sniper, so from their vantage point, that's all the cops are, racist and bigoted.
Yet, gangs like the Crips and the Bloods were a problem. The drug-dealing and the violence amongst black youth were problems. I won't go as far as to say this film glorifies that, but the irony of it appears to be lost.
The opening scene in fact depicts Eazy in a gang situation, and instead of taking a tone of horror or desperation, the film treats it as though it were an action scene and Eazy is the hero, narrowly escaping the bad guys who in this case include the police. However, he's the drug dealer in this scenario.
Another scene has a gang member pull a gun on a teenager on a school bus. That scene does have a tone of horror, as it should, but it's later brushed off with comedy as if the gang member did a good thing. It was almost a scared-straight joke.
The racial profiling that N.W.A. protests assumes that every young black kid is a gang member. Yet, at almost every turn, any situation that N.W.A. faces is resolved in ways that don't distance them at all from the gang members they claim not to be. For example, one scene has them throwing an orgy of drugs and women. When a boyfriend to one of the women shows up looking for her, Eazy pulls a shotgun on him. In another scene, Cube's solution to Bryan not delivering on his record deal promise is to take a baseball bat and destroy Bryan's office.
When Cube and Eazy are at odds, and Cube does a battle rap or a "dis" record that makes fun or rightly criticizes and slams Eazy and Jerry, Eazy's solution is to have Cube beaten up. Later, Dre associates himself with a Suge Knight, played by R. Marcos Taylor, who beats up people in broad daylight over parking.
Yes, Dre and all of N.W.A. reconcile and forgive each other, but there is an irony that isn't reconciled. How can the LAPD be portrayed as such evil when there are legitimate issues of violence, even among these young men?
It's something most people walking out won't care about. It's why this film won't ever be as potent as John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991), which did understand the irony. Most audiences will probably just enjoy the music for the nostalgia factor or marvel at the depictions of these young well-known rap stars, which includes Snoop Dogg, played by Keith Stanfield and Tupac Shakur, played by Marcc Rose. It's funny and entertaining in that regard.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 27 mins.