A rap group as powerful and influential as N.W.A. deserves a film just as bold and exciting. Biopic Straight Outta Compton does them proud.
Director F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tracks the formation of rap group N.W.A. and how its members revolutionized the music industry through gangsta rap. Primarily focused on three members of the group – Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) – the film follows how each man grew and changed through both success and tragedy and what their music meant both for themselves and society.
Portraying a group as incendiary as N.W.A. can be a difficult task for biographic filmmaking. Clean up the image of the band and its members too much and you ignore the truths about each rapper and the world they were bringing to the attention of the mainstream. Glorify the crime and violence that surrounded them and you send a mixed message about what ghettos and gangs do to the people involved. But Straight Outta Compton manages to show many different sides to what gangsta rap was about during its rise in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as we not only see N.W.A.’s members find success through giving a voice to their struggles, but also the serious issues that the white and privileged didn’t think about at the time. Or now.
Most crucially, Straight Outta Compton calls attention to vital issues in a similar way to the actual music of N.W.A. Viewers are given a look into how police brutality and racism led to desperate situations for African American communities. The anger and freedom expressed through rap shoved these issues in the faces of everyone everywhere, which many simply could not understand. Rather than try and understand the real world situations that led to N.W.A.’s songs, people protested, journalists questioned, and the police tried to shut them up. But N.W.A. did not back down. On the flip side, Straight Outta Compton also shows the violence and anger that permeated the music industry surrounding N.W.A. through the gang ties of its members and other rappers in the industry. By bringing affiliations with them, the death and aggression that they were rapping about followed them into the studios.
Given that this biopic has three main characters who are each given major focus and two distinctive halves to the plot, Straight Outta Compton does an amazing job at spinning multiple plates at once and making each part feel fleshed out and interesting. There’s never a point where you wish the movie would go back to a different member or focus on a different aspect of the music.
During the first half, we see the everyday lives of Dre, Cube, and E on the streets of Compton and what brought them together. By forming N.W.A., they gave a voice to their generation raised hell across the country. Straight Outta Compton makes a compelling point about how anger and art can make a difference, even when it does have its limitations. In contrast, the second half of the film focuses primarily on the breaking apart of N.W.A. and what happened to its members in the aftermath. But it stays as interesting as the first half, as each man is fascinating in his own right. However, the timely relevance of N.W.A.’s rebellion and the police aggression they battled against is most prevalent in the first half, which can’t help but make its second, music industry-focused half feel less vibrant and visceral.
Throughout the film’s course, we see these men come together, break apart, hate each other, and love one another as they each pursue something they love and care about. Each of the three leads put in great performances, showing various sides of the subjects and turning them into real people rather than the bronze statues that many subjects of biopics become when a biographical film becomes too reverent of its subjects. In particular, it is the life and death of Eazy E that provides the emotional throughline of the film, as his connection to Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, along with his complicated relationship with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), is the driving force behind much of the narrative. Straight Outta Compton’s constantly shifting focus helps give equal voices to all three men in order to prevent villainizing anyone outright (except for Suge Knight) and keeping the audience guessing about where the narrative will go next.
The film also excels at showing the true power of the group’s music, with F. Gary Gray’s direction using the innate power of what N.W.A. created and transmitting it throughout the film. Each song feels just as powerful as it did when it first debuted decades ago. You can feel it jumping off the screen and plunging inside you. It’s raw, it’s real, and it thankfully avoids many clichés that often bog down music biopics. Audiences are given insight into the lives and incidents that led to the music, giving a more human approach to rappers who were legendary in the industry. Rather than portray them as godlike – spitting out perfect lyrics on the first try without a second’s thought – there are mistakes and flubs along the way. While the film quickly gets to N.W.A. at the height of its powers, the journey that gets them there helps maintain the human side when excess, money, drugs, and power come into play. And yes, when the parties get wild, they really get wild. But to downplay the misogynistic side of it all would be keeping some truths hidden. Some might find it glamorous, but there’s plenty of downsides, as well.
If there is a weakness to the film, it’s the question of what was left out and what was altered for the sake of its real life subjects. Much has been made of the lack of Dr. Dre’s well-publicized violent altercations with women, and while it doesn’t detract from the overall message of the movie, it does raise some questions about the overall depictions on screen. But no biographical film can ever claim to be objective in its storytelling, as what is focused on and what is left out of a movie is based on the subjective nature of forming a story. That’s especially the case when two of the film’s real life stars are producers.
Given the fact that movie theaters increased security surrounding screenings of Straight Outta Compton and the countless instances of police brutality and racially-related killings that have happened in the last few years, it’s clear that the issues that led to N.W.A. are just as damaging today as they were 30 years ago. As a film that both illuminates the true damage of these issues and pays tribute to influential artists who give voice to those harmed, Straight Outta Compton is a rousing success on many different levels.