It’s often said that our art is a reflection of the time it was created in. If that’s true, then director F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, is a successful and unflinching reflection of the world that brought on the most important rap group in history. Following the fast rise and fall of the N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton moves along at nearly the same pace of the group’s actual songs, as it speeds through nearly a decade’s worth of events in just a two and half hour running time.
The film opens with such a stunning sequence of tension and grime that by the time the title card appears, one thing is clear: this will not be your average musical biopic. Does it live up to that promise? Almost completely. Following the near-perfect opening, the film takes its time introducing us to each of the members of the N.W.A., beginning with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). Each character has their own introduction and backstory, and each have their own problems, talents, lives — that it makes sense only this exact group of guys could have made that exact kind of music.
As the group slowly comes together, the process to creating the first N.W.A. song -“Boyz N the Hood” – makes it seem like the group and Eazy-E almost stumbled into the song’s final product, and as they begin to defy all expectations, climbing to the charts — Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), enters. He’s a music manager promising big things to Eazy and the boys, but there’s something almost indistinguishably secretive about him, and as the film unfolds — his ulterior motives become even more clear.
Several sequences of police brutality are laid periodically throughout the film, and help to illustrate the group’s combined rage towards the world around them. In less sure hands, the repeated sequences might have felt heavy-handed or unnecessary after awhile, but director F. Gary Gray’s steady direction helps to make the sequences feel quite the opposite. In fact, by the time the film ends, audience members will have become so engrossed in not only the characters, but also the Los Angeles world created onscreen that it’ll be hard for Angelenos to see the city any differently afterwards.
The story of the N.W.A. is riddled with clashing egos though, and while the group manage to stay together through tragedy and shared nights in jail – it all begins to crumble down as egos get in the way (as they always seem to in the music industry), and friendships are shattered. None of the conflict or drama feels forced, or predictable and what follows in the second half is an entertaining and engrossing story of a bitter rivalry between old friends, and their shared struggle towards redemption.
The film is littered with incredible performances throughout as well. Paul Giamatti is always a sure thing as a villain, but his Jerry Heller is a complex and deeply-imagined character. It’s the kind of performance only a real veteran actor to provide, and fits in well among all these rookie performances.
However, the two standouts belong to Hawkins and Mitchell, as their performances as Dre and Eazy-E are so rich and real, that it’ll be a travesty if these two actors don’t shoot towards stardom following this film’s release. O’Shea Jackson Jr. does a fine job playing his real father onscreen, and manages to skillfully avoid being an imitation of the Ice Cube well-known in the pop culture world.
F. Gary Gray, who has in the past mostly worked with comedies or action films, has created his best outing to date. His direction is reminiscent of legends like Scorsese or De Palma, as he follows the rise and fall of the N.W.A. like its some kind of amusement ride. The mix of the music and the brutality of the time combine together and make Straight Outta Compton feel like its a new kind of epic. Deeply poetic and entertaining at the same time, it’s a hip-hop odyssey that transcends its time.
This is not a perfect film though. It slows down at points throughout, and sometimes characters will appear and disappear suddenly without any prior explanation, and despite a heavy emotional weight throughout, the ending doesn’t quite hit as hard as the film’s introduction. But these are small criticisms for an otherwise enthralling film. Straight Outta Compton very much rides the same lines as other biopics in the Hollywood circuit have the past few years, but at the same time, it challenges the rules and structure that it is built off of. I suppose it wouldn’t really be a film about the N.W.A. if it didn’t.
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