Back in the mid-80s, musical prodigy Andre Young (a.k.a Dr. Dre), prolific writer O’Shea Jackson (a.k.a. Ice Cube), and former drug dealer Eric Wright (a.k.a. Easy-E) created the world’s first gangsta rap supergroup N.W.A. Basing their raps in real life problems of growing up on the streets of Compton, California, a place where gang violence and a threatening L.A.P.D. were equal ways of getting killed or locked up, Dre (Corey Hawkins), Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and Easy (Jason Mitchell) courted controversy and mainstream acclaim before any of them were barely out of their teens. The group would only produce a single album with their original line-up before less than amicably breaking up over Cube and Dre having beef with their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Not only would the legacy of N.W.A.’s often violent and politically tinged music live on, but all three main members of the group would go on to become some of the most lauded (and sometimes vilified) names in hip-hop.
It’s hard to make a musical biopic out of an entire band whose members’ solo careers almost eclipse what they did as a unit, but Straight Outta Compton might be the best case scenario for trying to boil down the significance of N.W.A. It certainly benefits from a timely release given the current state of race relations in America, and it comes directed by music video vet F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set it Off, The Negotiator) who comes to the project with an intimate knowledge of how all the members of the group operated. It’s essentially being told by someone who’s a bit of a historian on the issue, and one that’s a useful primary source.
This leads the film to have a great deal of authenticity, vibrancy, and substance for the first eighty minutes or so. The formation of the group and what each member brings to the table is explored in depth without glossing over sometimes unsavory moments that isn’t afraid to make the real life figures seem less than sympathetic. They aren’t meant to be sympathetic, anyway. They’re meant to be real and relateable. The struggle faced by these young men and the mistakes made along the way comes across expertly.
Those looking for more insight into often unremarked upon band members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) won’t find anything here, but those looking for what made the core trio so special will find a lot to enjoy and talk about in terms of how they’re depicted.
Most important to the success of a film like this is the cast, and while Hawkins probably has the least taxing role, they all shine and embody the charisma and smarts of their real life counterparts. Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son in real life, embodies his father perfectly, but Mitchell’s portrayal of Easy is a star making performance in every respect. While Giamatti and R. Marcos Taylor, as Suge Knight, get a bit cartoonish as the film’s villains towards the end, they still anchor the film nicely, portraying the music business as something almost as bad as trying to make it on the streets.
The first eighty minutes of this sprawling 150 minute epic eschews most music biopic conventions nicely. Historical figureheads don’t pop up at convenient times just to provide context, and there aren’t any grand speeches. Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff display an admirable amount of authenticity and their desire to be comprehensive should be applauded to some degree, but that can’t mask the fact that once Cube goes solo, Dre starts Death Row Records, and Easy starts a decline into poor health and irrelevancy, the whole thing becomes three stand alone films stuffed into a single package that can’t contain it all.
Then, sadly, in the final thirty minutes, those historical figureheads and signifiers start popping up conveniently and the hackneyed speeches come in to try and wrap things up. It becomes apparent that since the story of at least two members of N.W.A. is still being told, any ending the film was going to have would be a completely arbitrary one for the sake of cutting everything off. It’s not a great ending, but there’s a lot of great stuff in here.