Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Knight Jr.
It is said that history is written by the victors and to an extent that is what you get with Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s biopic of trailblazing West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). Among the film’s producers are two of the group’s founding members, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Dr Dre is now CEO of Aftermath Records and Beats Electronics and ranked the richest figure in American hip hop by Forbes magazine. Ice Cube is a successful rapper, producer and movie star. They are the victors and the film they present is a mythologising of their origin story which takes us back to when these establishment figures were dangerous outsiders.
In 1986 we meet our three principals: charismatic drug dealer Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), aspiring DJ Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and teenage rapper O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr). Not content with his regular gig which has no interest in rap music, Dr Dre approaches Eazy for capital to record an album. With Dre’s beats, Cube’s rhymes and Eazy’s business acumen, they found N.W.A. Other foundation members DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) and MC Ren (Aldris Hodge) are reduced to minor characters, always present but rarely central to a scene.
Their first single, “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” attracts the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who with Eazy forms Ruthless Records and arranges for N.W.A to record their first album. With that record, which gives the film its title, they go huge. The concert scenes, which are the energetic high points of the film, start out with solely black audiences, but as the tour progresses these crowds become increasingly white. It is a subtle and effective way of showing their rise from niche to mainstream success. But the closeness of Jerry and Eazy’s working relationship makes Ice Cube suspicious and soon fractures the group, creating fierce, high profile rivalries.
Straight Outta Compton follows many of the familiar beats of the band biopic: the rise from obscurity, the adjusting to fame, the growing tensions. A staple scene in such films is the moment of inspiration that leads to a hit song. Straight Outta Compton shows N.W.A’s anthem ‘Fuck the Police’ to be a direct, heated response to the repeated humiliation and unprovoked searches the young men are subjected to by a racist, heavy-handed Los Angeles police force. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when the group is made to lie on the sidewalk to be searched while taking a lunch break out the front of their recording studio. This, along with the allusions to the Rodney King case and subsequent LA riots ensure that race relations is a key theme in the film – and the harrowing similarities between the events depicted on screen and those recently occurring in Ferguson ensure that thematically Straight Outta Compton is just as relevant today. Through tapping into this context, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay emphasises the protest nature of N.W.A’s music while also seeking to address the common accusations that their music glamourised violence and gang culture. In a press conference we see Ice Cube articulate that their art is a reflection of their reality, that they are as much journalists as musicians.
But while an effort was made to address those complaints that the music condoned violence and gang culture, there is no effort to address the issue of misogyny. Straight Outta Compton is not a great film to its women. There are no female characters of substance, with all women in the film reduced to either anonymous sex objects at parties or mothers and girlfriends who are represented as naggers and burdens. There has also been some criticism that this account neglects to address Dr Dre’s assault of MTV reporter Dee Barnes in 1990.
While biopics are often Oscar bait for big name actors, the largely anonymous nature of the cast in Straight Outta Compton means they can disappear into their characters. In an impressive cast it is Jason Mitchell as Eazy E who stands out, while O’Shea Jackson Jr is strikingly similar in appearance and mannerism to his real life father Ice Cube. Director F. Gary Gray also has a long connection to the material having started his career directing music videos for Ice Cube and made his transition into feature films in 1995 by directing Friday, the comedy written by and starring Ice Cube.
With a runtime of 147 minutes, Straight Outta Compton gets a bit long. The energy and vitality of the film’s first half, following the group’s rise to prominence, stalls in the second when the film jumps forward to 1993, but it never entirely drops the ball.
N.W.A’s story is one worth telling. They were such an important part of the nineties zeitgeist, and incredibly influential in the shaping of current day hip hop culture. Straight Outta Compton does a good job of recording this story for the fans, and introducing it to audiences unfamiliar with it. You just need to remember that you are watching one side of the story.
Review by Duncan McLean
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