Oftentimes having the subject of a biopic involved in the production ends up watering it down to the point it’s completely neutered. However, we should have probably guessed that wouldn’t have been too much of a problem for the members of NWA, who made their name by being honest about their lives and the world that they came from.
Even so, it’s taken a long time to get the project off the ground, and even just before it arrived, some wondered whether the subject matter would have genuinely wide appeal. However, with a great critical reaction and a gross of $160 million just in the US, it certainly defied expectations. It undoubtedly helped as well that the film arrived just at the right moment too, as the Black Lives Matter movement was rising and distrust of US law enforcement made the message of songs like ‘Fuck tha Police’ seem as timely as when they were first written.
However, it’s not just a happy accident of timing that’s ensured it’s been a success, but also that it’s a good movie. Straight Outta Compton takes up back to the 1980s, when the likes of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) were kids from the streets of south LA, dealing with police brutality and harassment, as well as gang violence, drugs and a neighbourhood that often resembled a war zone.
They dream of spinning decks and making it in the world of rap. With the help of manager Jerry (Paul Giamatti), they manage to break straight outta Compton with their incendiary beats, which take a hardcore look at the truth of their own existence and the life they came from. However, while anthems like ‘Fuck tha Police’ find a massive following from those who feel NWA reflect a truth that no one has dealt with in that way before, the authorities don’t feel the same way and see it as an incitement to violence against them.
As their success spirals, issues over money, respect and business begin to tear them apart, which brings about a series of feuds. However, it also ensures the growth of a new and revolutionary form of rap, which extends far beyond NWA itself.
If you look at it objectively, the plot of Straight Outta Compton is nothing new. Indeed, it’s pretty much the same story that 90% of music biopics have – young people with lots of hope find fame, but discover there are dangers to success and a major comedown will have to happen. What sets it apart though is its honesty, some great performances from a largely unknown cast, and an impressive ability to take us into its world and the importance of what it’s talking about.
Just in the first five minutes it sets out its stall, with a thrilling sequence showing the danger and braggadocio of gangsters in the hood, as well as the way the police have literally turned it into a warzone, when a tank-like vehicle with a battering ram on the end smashes into a drug den. It quickly helps lay the groundwork for a film where you may fault some of the decisions the characters make, but you can’t fault their anger, or say you can’t understand why the sort of violent machismo that floats around their world exists. Equally, it makes you understand why they sometimes make decisions that could be against their best interests, due to the importance of feeling in control of their own lives.
The script is also pretty smart in the way it mirrors how the authority’s actions may have resulted in the fracturing of the black community and the rise or gangs that then ripped it further apart from the inside, with how the business people in the music industry’s actions may have done something similar in microcosm that caused all sorts of issues in rap. The film certainly doesn’t sugar coat any of this, walking a smart line between showing how things came to be the way they were, and ensuring it doesn’t completely allow the main character to get a moral pass for some of their more dubious actions.
Even those who don’t like rap (myself largely included) will get a real feel for the importance of NWA, whose cultural significance isn’t as widely acknowledged as the likes of the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, even though arguably their prophetic and rousing beats ignited something more vital in the US that the country is still feeling today.
Admittedly Straight Outta Compton is a little too long, although oddly, the extra 20 minutes added by the Director’s Cut that’s on the Blu-ray actually help to balance the movie better than the shorter version. There are also moments where it struggles to keep hold of its wide-ranging and expansive plot, and the second hour gets a little bogged down in slightly repetitive arguments about business and money. Overall though it’s a really good movie, and well worth watching whether you’re a rap fan or not.
The film also looks and particularly sounds great on Blu-ray, and comes with a great selection of special features. The featurettes are particularly worth a look. They are fairly short but it’s really good seeing the real members of NWA talking about their musical origins, as well as how the young cast came together and how they used some of the best talent (both NWA members and others) to teach them everything they needed to know. It’s also oddly sweet to see O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s excitement not to just be on set for his first film, but also to be playing his own father, Ice Cube (and just incidentally Cube should be given a lot of credit, as he was central to getting the movie made, but certainly didn’t force the makers to make him out to be a saint or a victim).
Overall Verdict: A great look at the birth of a new, angrier, honest artform and the world that produced it, filled with excellent performance from its young cast. Gangster rap may have had its problems and negative repercussions (something the film doesn’t ignore), but the events of the past couple of years show NWA is as relevant as ever.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac