After an attention grabbing opening involving the police and neighbourhood drug dealer Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell), we’re introduced to lyricist O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson (O’Shea Jr., playing his Father to perfection) and aspiring DJ Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young (Corey Hawkins). Together the trio form the core of N.W.A – Niggaz wit’ Attitude for the uninitiated – with DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) joining up soon after. The popularity of their debut single ‘Boyz-N-The-Hood’ puts them on the radar of veteran manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and soon bigger but not necessarily better things await.
Straight Outta Compton follows the familiar biopic template, depicting N.W.A’s rise, break-up, and everything in between. Condensing ten years of rap history into 148 minutes is a tall order, but screenwriters Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman’s sprawling narrative is riveting.
As you’d expect, the soundtrack itself is excellent, seamlessly alternating between the actual songs and the actors’ covers. But where the film really excels is in ensuring that the truth behind N.W.A’s righteous lyrics are understood. At one point Ice Cube authoritatively states that “our art is a reflection of our reality”, and Gray does an excellent job of putting us in the shoes of the group as they are forced to endure infuriating encounters with police.
As the focus shifts to the disbanding of the group and their individual woes and triumphs in the third act, the infectious energy of the first 90 minutes is lost. It’s an inevitable and surprisingly rewarding sacrifice though, as the broadened scope allows for a deeper examination of the group’s principal members. By the time we arrive at the film’s tragic ending, every moment is earned. Furthermore, multiple moments of foreshadowing in Compton’s latter half offers its own nostalgic pleasures, especially when we see 2Pac (Marcc Rose) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) just starting to work on what we know will go on to become hip-hop legend.
More than just looking like and mimicking the icons they portray, the performances from the perfectly cast ensemble capture the essence of their characters. Mitchell in particular is a revelation, nailing Eazy-E’s brashness and later, his regret. Through it all the sense of brotherhood within the group is intensely felt, making the more emotional moments resonate all the more deeply. Credit should also be given to Giamatti’s Heller – who benefits greatly from the film’s smart reluctance to not have the manager be an out-and-out villain from the outset – and R. Marcos Taylor, who cuts an appropriately menacing figure as bodyguard-turned-mogul Suge Knight.
As with any biopic the question of fact vs. fiction lingers in the air, and the debate is all the more potent here given that the film is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube respectively. However, though their characters and others retain our sympathies, Gray & co don’t shy away from showing them make dumb mistakes. An argument can also be made that the film drifts into myth-making in its final minutes. One can’t help but feel that it’s a tad deserved; this is a rags-to-riches story after all, and the fact that these men managed to overcome their circumstances and surpass their dreams is inspiring.
Regardless of any omissions, Straight Outta Compton remains an essential biopic. Hip-hop enthusiasts will come for the music, but like N.W.A itself the film is much bigger and important than any album, and is all the more compelling for being so.