N.W.A is considered one of the pioneers of gangster rap, their music openly honest about their contempt for law enforcement and often followed by controversy. Being so influential in the “reality rap” genre and nominated twice for induction into the Rock and Roll hall of fame, it’s not surprising that a biopic would be made about the group.
Straight Outta Compton, also the title of the group’s debut studio album, documents the rise (and fall) of N.W.A. It focuses primarily on Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Andre “Dr Dre” Young and their relationship with N.W.A manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). The other members of the group, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby (Neil Brown Jnr), Tracy “D.O.C” Curry (Marlon Yates Jnr) and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson (Aldis Hodge) get a bit of a short shrift and play diminished supporting roles, with Kim “Arabian Prince” Nazel totally cut out of the film all together.
As the film was produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, it’s no surprise that their personas get a large amount of screen-time. That being the case, it’s Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy that steals the show. A large chunk of the first part of the movie follows Eazy as he progresses from a kid selling crack to a bona-fide star. The character is truly three dimensional, not cast as bad or good, but showing shades of grey as he struggles with doing what is best for himself and what’s best for the group.
Being Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jnr is almost a dead ringer for his famous father. Watching the film, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the original Ice Cube busting out those now-famous lyrics on screen. Jackson’s performance, while not as nuanced as Mitchell’s, is still enjoyable to watch, not being played as a total paragon, and still displaying a darker side to his character.
Of the three main roles, Corey Hawkins as Dr Dre is probably the most vanilla. There is nothing wrong with the character per se, however he doesn’t have the edge or grit that pervades the other two main roles, which is a little surprising given that Dr Dre has multiple charges of assault and abuse against his name. I guess they wanted to play up the virtues of the film’s two producers.
Biopics of this nature tend to be intense and dark, often starting with the “happy” times before descending to the ugliness that drives the central conflict. In this respect, Compton adheres to that tried and true tradition. In fact it sticks to a lot of clichés associated to music biopics with the groups’ interaction with famous singers and rappers, those moments where you see famous songs being written or inspired in the recording studio and the underdogs fighting against those who would keep them down.
While that may sound like a bad thing, it’s not. Seeing the doppelgängers of the likes of Snoop Dogg and Tupac, or seeing how Ice Cube was inspired to write “F*ck Tha Police” is fun to watch. Hearing the group lay down famous tracks and hearing those songs pump through the cinema speakers made me just want to nod and bob my head with the music. The beats are so catchy and evocative that you can’t help wanting to dance in your seat.
There is a lot of heavy subject matter in this film, bringing to the fore the discrimination that was experienced by the African American community by society, by the law enforcement in particular. It also shows how the lyrics of N.W.A made a strong political statement, providing a voice to people that were constantly being pushed down. All this could have come across as very heavy handed but it’s done with such a deft touch that these themes are brought to the viewer’s attention without seeming like a lecture. Part of this is due to the script knowing when to ease up on the intensity, peppering light hearted moments through the film. Seeing Eazy rapping for the first time is easily one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie and is also a great example of how the film balances intensity with light hearted humour.
In an era where most films seem to be over-long, this is one of the few movies in recent times where I felt disappointed to find out we were nearing the end. I could have easily carried on watching the exploits of N.W.A and while Straight Out of Compton may not be the most objective music biopic, it is still highly entertaining, and easily one of the best of its genre.
Well written, captivating and once again pumping N.W.A’s addictive music into your soul, I give Straight Out of Compton an 8.5 out of 10.