I may not be a fan of today’s current hip-hop scene, but this reviewer has a soft spot for early gangsta rap. From KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police” to most of Snoop’s catalog, each song represents a cultural look into a world my safely-suburban-ass knows absolutely nothing about. The grooves are tight, the messages are blunt (the ghetto’s punk rock, if you will), and the performers are REAL people (no frontin’), but someone had to first test the waters of society with such aggressive musical tastes. Those thuggish soldiers were known as N.W.A., a Compton “supergroup” who assaulted America with a bullish brand of street-wise entertainment that made them public enemy number one in conservative eyes – and smoldering stars to the rest of us.
Straight Outta Compton is no normal biopic though – it’s a revolution. It’s a statement in a time of social disconnect. It’s a reminder that change will never come without someone brave enough to lead the charge. N.W.A. was comprised of people who wanted to escape their dangerous surroundings, but never lose touch of the driven, ambitious, underprivileged kids they were. They didn’t want to fully escape Compton – they wanted to bring Compton with them.
Under the guidance of F. Gary Gray, we’re taken into the gang-banging world of Compton in its bleakest state. Opening on a close run-in between Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and a police battering ram, we’re immediately thrown into a hood mentality that becomes the lifeblood of Straight Outta Compton. Eazy was nothing but a drug dealer, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) a homeless disc jockey, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) an unconventional poet, and their buddies DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) were just faithful followers. But these boys had a vision. They had talent – don’t get me wrong – but they had a vision that became reality thanks to early manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti).
You already know that it wasn’t all paradise for the boys of N.W.A., and after finding tremendous success (and a few arrests) after their national tour, members began to feel neglected. Ice wasn’t happy with his cut of the pie, Dr. Dre met Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and N.W.A. became nothing but Eazy-E’s struggling moneymaker. We follow the diss wars, the brawls, and all the debauchery in between, but still learn that you can take the “blood” out of “blood brother” and have just as strong a relationship with someone.
Now, it’s F. Gary Gray who takes us into Compton, but it’s his phenomenal cast who keeps us there. Hats off to every single one of the N.W.A. boys, who explode off the screen both musically and as social misfits. O’Shea Jackson Jr. has the easiest job, already possessing both the physicality and mannerisms of his famous father (Ice Cube), but that doesn’t make his hardened performance any less impressive. Words are his weapon, and he drops them like bombs. But compare Jackson Jr.’s work to Jason Mitchell’s transformation into N.W.A.’s unfortunate leader, Eazy-E, and you can’t help but be just a tad more impressed. Mitchell steals the show as Eazy-E, mimicking his squeaky-pitched delivery and lovable swagger with the flair of an urban chameleon. These kids set the stage on fire, but collectively hit upon that mutual respect the streets instilled in them.
Oh yeah, and a bonus shout out to Keith Stanfield and Marcc Rose as well, who respectively KILL it as Snoop and Tupac. F. Gary Gray’s best friend is realism throughout Straight Outta Compton, and he couldn’t have asked for a better cast.
Gray hasn’t directed a film since 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. He’s able to balance so many beats here, from N.W.A.’s energetic stage productions, to volatile race riots complete with protective gear. Straight Outta Compton works because the music comes to life through real events that tore apart a bigoted nation, sending a nostalgic chill every time Dre starts to play the early stages of a particular tune.
When outsiders listen to N.W.A.’s lyrics, it’s impossible to fully envision the chaos these men grew up around (shootings/police abuse/drug addiction), but Gray fully explores the events that inspired such lyrics. Ice’s first delivery of “Fuck Tha Police” is such a firestarter from the first time he kills its opening verse, especially because we see the disgusting police brutality that led to his retaliatory exclamations. Gray captures the passion, determination, and strength of N.W.A., which hits like a brass-knuckle punch time and time again.
Running at a lengthy two and a half hours, Straight Outta Compton could have used a trip to the barber – but it never feels overlong. It’s a biopic with balls, and isn’t afraid to show exactly what terrified naysayers feared N.W.A. was all about. These kids were packing some serious heat (literally), born from a time of injustice and hatred – yet they channeled their aggression into a vocal display of protest that could be heard (and enjoyed) by all. They couldn’t rely on an overnight YouTube discovery or some reality show to find success. N.W.A. was a different breed of role model, for kids who needed it the most, and thanks to F. Gary Gray, their cinematic story does right to further their legendary status.
Straight Outta Compton is more a statement movie than a linear biopic, and while it runs a tad too long, Gray's cast never stops delivering a consistently passionate energy.