“The World’s Most Dangerous Rap Group” was always more than just a clever gimmick used to sell albums; it actually meant something when applied to N.W.A. The seminal west coast rap group was more than just a threat to the complacent hip-hop status quo of the late ‘80s; they literally had people in this country fearing for their very lives. With every controversial, incendiary lyric aimed at the police or a corrupt system failing black youths they were a voice for those who had been ignored for far too long. Despite a few flaws inherent to nearly all music biopics, the long-developing “Straight Outta Compton“ pulls no punches in capturing the volatility of the era and the group’s often violent rags-to-riches story.
In the wake of the rash of police brutality cases exposed across the country, Straight Outta Compton feels especially timely and relevant. It was the veritable battlefield of drugs, poverty, and police misconduct on the streets of L.A. that forged the group into a band of brothers ready to inflict some lyrical punishment. The film begins, surprisingly, with an action sequence involving Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) as he flees a crack den to escape an invading SWAT team. Whether or not he was literally bounding over rooftops like a secret agent is up for debate, but the scene sets up that these guys were hardly saints, and did whatever it took to survive. That mentality would soon carry over to their rap careers, as well. We’re soon after introduced to Andre Young aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), who struggles with a tumultuous home life made more difficult now that he’s about to become a father. And then there’s group firebrand, O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube (played by his son who bears the same name), who soaks in the world around him like a sponge; the Bloods ‘n Crips gang battles, the police brutality, and the complete ignorance (possibly willful) of the situation by those who live just a few blocks away.
Produced by Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E’s widow, the film largely focuses on those characters and how they built N.W.A. into rebellious force for social change, with music as their weapons of choice. Backed by Eazy-E’s drug money, Dre’s killer beats, and Cube’s forceful brand of braggadocio, the group quickly went from ghetto celebrities ranting about life on the streets, to a national sensation performing in front of thousands of screaming fans. To do it they put their faith in shady record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who as any fan of the group knows had ulterior motives the whole way through. Getting short shrift in the film just as they did in real life are MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), who are mostly relegated to comic relief status.
The film is at its absolute best early, establishing the relationships and creating the dynamic, hard-hitting sound that would make them the adoration of millions, the enemy of law enforcement, and the boogeymen to terrified parents. What separates this from becoming just another episode of “Behind the Music” is the simmering racial tension that seems primed to explode. Facing harassment from police at every turn, even before live shows, the group would channel that rage into their brutally blunt music. In one particularly memorable scene, the group is slammed face down into the pavement by a group of cops, literally outside the door of their record studio. It would become the impetus for their controversial call-to-arms, “F**k Tha Police”, a track that had the FBI eyeing the group as a terrorist outfit.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, the film has an irresistible raw energy, powered by the group’s thunderous beats and aggressive spirit. Of course the soundtrack is phenomenal, going beyond the group’s discography to capture the sounds they were influenced by and others they directly influenced. What will stand out most are the eerily perfect casting choices, beginning with O’Shea Jackson who is definitely his daddy’s son. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of look, sound, and temperament. It’s amazing to watch Hawkins grow more comfortable into the role or Dre. While he doesn’t look like the super-producer at all, the confidence he exudes and single-minded focus is pure Dre. The rest of the cast are adequate, with Mitchell’s Eazy-E uncannily reminiscent of the late rapper. Unfortunately for Giamatti, the only real veteran of the cast, his Heller is pretty much depicted as a sleazebag from start-to-finish so he doesn’t get as much to work with. Better are the minor cameos by Keith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg and Marcc Rose as a burgeoning 2Pac. And special notice should be given to R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight. His looming, darkening presence drives much of the film’s tension as he quietly tries to rip the group apart with quiet promises of big money, and threats of violence.
Ultimately, “Straight Outta Compton” takes on a very familiar note. The parties, the girls, the money…they all lead to dissension, paranoia, and back-stabbing. Clocking in at over 140 minutes, there’s still a lot of ground that doesn’t get covered and way too much superficiality, especially following the group’s eventual dissolution. There isn’t much background given to much of the group, with the exception of Dre, and it’s hard not to wish for more of a chance to learn who they were outside of being rappers. We see glimpses of what they would ultimately accomplish; such as a scene where Cube is busying typing away at his Friday screenplay, and plenty about Dre’s time with Death Row records. But the personal events that helped shape the group’s members into who they would become are sorely missing.
The simple fact is that rap biopics are few and far between. Biggie Smalls had the mediocre “Notorious” a few years ago, and that’s really about it. Sure, there was 50 Cent’s wildly fictional “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”, which was still pretty terrible, and Eminem’s “8 Mile” isn’t really his story but another fictional account of a rapper making it big. So “Straight Outta Compton“ is in rarefied territory, but even if it wasn’t N.W.A’s story would still be hugely entertaining and compelling. That it also proves to be an important commentary on race; as important as any recent civil rights drama, puts “Straight Outta Compton“ in a class all its own.