Call it what you will – reality rap, street rap, gangsta rap – N.W.A. is credited as having created it. The musical importance and cultural significance of the rap group N.W.A. (which does not stand for “No Whits Allowed”, as Paul Giamatti’s character asks in the trailer for the film), can not be over-stated. The group – made up of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren – birthed more than a subgenre of hip-hop music, they created a social revolution: Their blunt and anger-fueled lyrics still carry a message of immediacy and relevancy in today’s world. Straight Outta Compton (opening today) is the epic, slightly-romanticized story of N.W.A., a film whose fast-and-furious, over-stuffed pace matches many of the beats in which the group became famous for.
The backbone of their story seems very familiar, as it’s the same real-life rags-to-riches story that many famous groups and people have experienced and that has been told in films for decades. This tight-knit group of friends start from nothing, catch a break, and end up on the top of the mountain before the inevitable crash-and-burn that usually does follow.
In their case, they were all youths living in the corrupt police-state environment of South-Central Los Angeles (Compton to be exact). Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) is a street thug, selling drugs to make ends meet. Dre (Corey Hawkins) has dreams of scratching and producing music, even though there doesn’t seem to be any way to break out. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (portrayed by Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) has gotten local notoriety as a rapper and writer, but hasn’t done much to further his situation either.
They all get together and the combination of their talents is electric. The height of their success at this time was selling records out of the trunk of their cars, that is, until Easy-E is approached by music agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who seeks to make the group “legit” in the eyes of the outside world. The rest, as they say, is history.
The story doesn’t stop there, in fact, it doesn’t know where to stop, start, or even focus. This is one crowded film, even at two-and-a-half hours long, there is so much crammed between the credits that the story never seems to stop and catch its breath. It goes way beyond the rise of the group, and spans about 11 years or so. Because of the dizzying pace, many scenes just seem to skim the surface or they come across as truncated or artificial. Some bits of dialogue have characters specifically stating what they’re doing or how they’re feeling, because the movie simply doesn’t have enough time to show them doing or feeling it.
But half the fun of Straight Outta Compton is the music, the performances, and being able to spend some time with these larger-than-life characters. All of the actors do a great job (and man does Jackson Jr. look like his daddy), but it’s Jason Mitchell as Easy-E and Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller who truly deserve recognition. As much as it is a story about N.W.A., it’s also a father-son story about these two, and it’s the only sub-plot in the film that is given any time at all to blossom. The nuances that Giamatti brings to what should have been a straight-sleezeball “agent” character, is quite brilliant to watch. And Mitchell, who is not only a spitting image of Easy-E (who passed away in 1995 due to complications from AIDS), infuses the character with a real vulnerability not commonly found in the world he inhabits.
It is amusing to see not only the members of N.W.A. on screen, but also the bevy of other future rap stars who make their way through the film. We get to see glimpses of Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and even Tupac. The villainous rap mogul Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) also plays a heavy role. This is also a very funny movie, with some nice exchanges that really build up how close these guys really were, at least at one point.
What makes their journey different, of course, is the significance of their message. Through their music and unwillingness to back down, they shined a light on police corruption and the brutality that many inner-city blacks faced and continue to face today. There is no better time than the present – with what has been going on in Ferguson and other parts of the country – than to revisit N.W.A. Because of the slick nature of how this film was put together though, we don’t really get a good idea of how life was like in Compton…sure we get scenes of cops frisking young unarmed black men without reason, but the genesis of black frustration and anger towards police is way more complicated than that.
Straight Outta Compton goes full throttle from the very beginning until the very end, much like the rap group that it is profiling. It doesn’t always work, and for as much as they included, it’s somewhat surprising how much they still managed to leave out (I recall that getting laid was also a primary focus of N.W.A.’s music, not just rallying against the injustices of the world). But they were truly something special, a perfect storm that came together and changed the landscape forever. This is a good introduction to the group for those that only know Ice Cube as an actor, Dr. Dre as Eminem’s producer, or wonder just who the heck Easy-E is. Nearly 30 years later, their attitudes still largely reflect the pulse of our nation, and this movie is an homage to all that they represented, the good, the bad, and/or the ugly.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Music
Run Time: 2 hours, 27 minutes, Rated R
Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Paul Giamatti, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield
Directed by F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, Be Cool, The Italian Job, A Man Apart, The Negotiator, Friday)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 14, 2015 (check for show times).