Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
Release Date: August 14th, 2015
In one of the first scenes in the drama Straight Outta Compton, order the young Ice Cube (played by his own son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) sits on a local bus while a gangster boards it and waves a gun around like it’s no big deal. The gangster tells the students to stay in school while threatening them with a weapon. The scene should be shocking to the theater-going audience but isn’t to most of the characters on the bus.
This was what life was like growing up in Compton we learn and it’s not something that’s easily forgotten.
The new film chronicles the emergence of the Compton-based group N.W.A in the late 1980s and the explosion of gangster rap during that period. When Dr. Dre, link Ice Cube and Eazy-E originally formed the group together, more about they were young men who were driven to say something about their world. Growing up, they were surrounded by drug dealers, threatened by gangsters and harassed by the police. Instead of facing it in silence, they were driven to music.
Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was the leader of the emerging group and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube were his strongest musical collaborators.
Director F. Gary Gray shows their group’s emerging success while poignantly casting it against the background of their youth. When the group wrote the harsh lyrics of F*** the Police, it was a reaction against the police brutality they’d witnessed for years prior. In fact, the movie shows them being harassed by the police moments before they put pen to paper and start writing the lyrics.
The song was controversial, of course, and led to a lot of outrage. However, it was only a few years later that the beating of Rodney King was telegraphed to the world and showed citizens everywhere what N.W.A. was speaking out against. The film captures the outrage those videos inspired.
Gray, whose directorial debut was the Ice Cube vehicle Friday, worked in close collaboration with producers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube on this film. That support likely helped the director establish the reasoning behind these artists’ lyrics. It’s one thing to hear the lyrics by themselves and judge them for what they are. It’s another thing to see the obstacles these men had to face and see what they had to overcome to succeed like they did. Gray does a great job capturing their history, their surroundings and why they wrote what they did (even if you disagree with what they said).
That’s not to say that the movie unfairly makes these rappers into flawless heroes. The honest script, written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, tries to paint a full picture of these young men as they rose up in the music industry. Dr. Dre is seen neglecting the needs of his children and all of the men are— at points— arrogant, obnoxious and embittered. They are young men who are ill-prepared for stardom and who grew up believing that violence was a natural part of life. When they found success, their personalities didn’t change as much as their bank accounts did.
As the band found success though, it was also faced with turmoil, some of which arose from manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who favored Eazy-E over his bandmates.
The actors here– especially Jason Mitchell– capture the rise and fall of this group in great detail. Throughout the film’s 147-minute running time, Mitchell serves as the story’s powerful anchor and shows us what it must’ve been like to find such success after living in a dangerous world for so long. Mitchell is at times confident and controlling but can become vulnerable and pained when his close relationship with Heller undermines his relationship with his bandmates.
The end of N.W.A proves to be as riveting and intriguing as its inception. In the end, the young men who survived Compton together couldn’t maintain their friendship in the midst of their success and once they were separated, anger towards each other— rather than anger towards the police or their surroundings— sadly fueled some of their lyrics. When the movie comes to an end, we’ve seen these artists at their best and at their worst and we’ve also seen why they made the decisions– some of which came with deadly consequences– that they did.
Straight Outta Compton is more than just a biopic of a group. It’s a timely and honest look at a band that rose from terrible circumstances to achieve great success even when the world around them seemed to stand in their way.
Review by: John Hanlon