“An indisputable must-see”
Even as a white kid from suburbia, I remember being exposed to the exhilarating and raucous sound of N.W.A. when I was four or five. My mother would play one of her brother’s personally mixed CDs, filled with novelty songs, parodies, and vulgar rap songs I probably shouldn’t have been hearing at such a tender age, in car rides with me. Songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and “F*** the Police” were ingrained in my head, and I remember especially finding telling social relevance in the line, “searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product – thinkin’ every n**** is sellin’ narcotics” from the latter song despite being so young.
I may not have ever experienced racial injustice in my life, but I was at least aware of racial double standards at a young age. With that, one of the purposes of F. Gary Gray’s biopic on the acclaimed, pioneering rap group N.W.A. is to get us angry at the injustice that occurred in the 1980’s and 1990’s and remind us that this kind of hate still frighteningly occurs today. It hits us in the face and stomps on the audience hard, as if it’s strapped with brass knuckles and decked out in the latest Nikes, portraying the race relations in Los Angeles as they were – ugly and disgraceful.
This portrayal only fits that of N.W.A.’s music and character. Comprised of five talented, street-smart young men, N.W.A. was a rap group predicated on detailing their harsh reality and controversial opinions in a brutally honest manner. Featuring the lyrical talents of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., son of Ice Cube and a spitting image of his father), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), in addition to the lyrical and producing talents of MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), N.W.A. went from a Compton area bunch to a nationwide supergroup in what seemed to be overnight. Armed with the guidance of acclaimed music producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and their desire to rap the truth and the strength of street knowledge, Straight Outta Compton details the rise of the group in addition to subsequent beefs, contract battles, and multiple tragedies that faced the talented young men in their prime.
F. Gary Gray directs this film with complete conviction. He and writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff work to capture the major events in N.W.A. in a manner that, while all-encompassing, gets to the heart of each emotion and the significance of every conversation. Gray and company don’t mess around in detailing the sure power and magnitude of this group through concerts, riots, and nationwide recognition, and they do so in a manner that’s investing from the very first time the group is questioned by police for doing nothing wrong.
Straight Outta Compton, again, much like the music of N.W.A., hooks you with its bravado and swagger. We see the incredible charisma and charm of these five men, we hear their hard-hitting lyricism and their strong production, and we feel their simultaneous pride for their city and condemnation of its flaws, such as systemic racism and discrimination. From Gray’s assured direction, it continues with the performances, all of which unanimously strong. Eazy-E was a character I wasn’t really expecting to see developed as much as he was, but with the writing at hand and Jason Mitchell’s emotionally potent and tender performance, he becomes the standout in a sea of great acting.
Each actor brings something to the table here; Jackson, Jr.’s aggression is unmatched, particularly in a telling scene involving Priority Records, Hawkins is the conviction and the even-tempered soul through all this madness, Hodge is the wit and the sporadic humor of the group, and Brown, Jr. is the backup to all the characters in the film whenever they need it. Mitchell is the tender and enigmatic one, someone who isn’t easily defined, has trouble rapping and performing occasionally, but someone who also comes with big ideas for the group he knows, loves, and wants to make huge. Finally, let’s not forget Giamatti, in his second Oscar-worthy performance (first being in Love & Mercy) of the year, who gives a performance just as emotionally investing and captivating as that of Mitchell’s, particularly when the two are having a heart-to-heart.
As entertainment, Straight Outta Compton, for this past summer, is unmatchable in its level of fun and human interest. As social commentary, despite being set a few decades back, the film is frighteningly current in its issues and its ideas. While it may follow some typical tropes of a biopic (the “rise and fall” structure), nonetheless, the sleekness and universal strength of everyone and everything in this project make it rise above those shortcomings into something truly worthwhile. Finally, as a piece of hip-hop history, and film in general, it’s an indisputable must-see.