“Straight Outta Compton” is at its best when it demonstrates the link between musical expression and social protest. F. Gary Gray’s biopic offers a reflection on N.W.A, the hip-hop group who used fearless lyrics and provocative swagger to combat the racism of American society in the late eighties and early nineties. The movie’s concert sequences, which are full of vigor, provide the audience with a sense of N.W.A’s social potency. The depiction of a concert in Detroit, in which the group performed a fiery “F—- the Police” with angry police personnel in the crowd, encapsulates N.W.A’s refusal to be silenced in the face of injustice. Such scenes point to the lasting relevance of one of hip-hop’s most renowned groups. The racial turmoil of 2015 bears a disturbing resemblance to the racial prejudice that existed during N.W.A’s prime, and the music that Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella created continues to illuminate society today.
Unfortunately, while the concert scenes clarify the importance of N.W.A’s music, the scenes away from the stage offer just a cursory overview of the group’s existence. “Straight Outta Compton” does not offer a complex portrayal of the lives of N.W.A’s members. Occasional glimpses into the world of wild partying, violent retaliation, and drug-dealing – a trio of activities that affected the members of N.W.A in one way or another – fail to unearth any major insights into the emotions of the film’s protagonists. Eazy-E, for example, is shown as a former drug-dealer who rises to stardom on the power of his charisma and talent, but his life experiences seem only partially sketched according to the conventions of cinematic storytelling. “Straight Outta Compton” follows a redundant narrative path, and its reluctance to confront the complexity of its protagonists may explain in part why the film omitted any mention of the domestic abuse allegations that have been raised against Dr. Dre. Ultimately, the movie does not match the boldness and energy of its subjects.
“Straight Outta Compton” still makes for an entertaining 147 minutes. The lead actors – O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, and Jason Mitchell – do a stellar job of inhabiting Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E, respectively. Jackson, Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son, is especially remarkable, and he clearly has the talent needed to follow in his father’s footsteps. The film also boasts the great Paul Giamatti. Fresh off the heels of his Oscar-worthy portrayal of the psychotic Eugene Landy in “Love & Mercy,” Giamatti again lends his trademark gusto to the role of an overbearing music manager, this time as Jerry Heller.
The best music biopics provide something in addition to the power of the music itself. “Straight Outta Compton” lacks that extra element that elevates biopics out of the realm of predictability. F. Gary Gray’s movie deserves much of the acclaim it has received for contributing to the larger conversation about race and racism in America. As a movie, though, “Straight Outta Compton” falls short of its potential.