By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
In a year where police brutality is a hot topic on the evening news (and internet) and explosive rioting has taken its toll in the urban sprawl, this movie couldn’t have arrived at a more relevant time. The incendiary rap group, N.W.A. emerged from the inner Los Angeles suburb of Compton to achieve stardom as hip hop artists during the late eighties and early nineties. It was a time when the L.A.P.D. came under media scrutiny for various acts of misconduct, including the beating of Rodney King. Sadly, somethings haven’t changed much, but at least during the era of N.W.A., these “gangsta rap” pioneers gave the troubled African-American youth an angry voice and galvanized awareness of the problems they were facing.
Director F. Gary Gray’s biopic of the infamous group not only pays tribute to the creative legacy N.W.A. leaves behind, but also to the political impact the group has on the world. In 1988, N.W.A. released their first studio album, Straight Outta Compton to critical acclaim, moderate commercial success, and almost overnight cult popularity. Eric,”Eazy E”, Wright (Jason Mitchell), at the behest of his neighborhood buddy Andre, “Dr.Dre”, Young (Corey Hawkins), starts the label Ruthless Records in hopes of breaking into the music business. When Eazy and Dre have a falling out with their first proposed rap group, the two friends look to other neighborhood buddies Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) to form the super-group N.W.A. Eazy E’s first single, Boyz-n-the-Hood attracts the attention of famed music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who “partners” with Wright to form the record label and mass produce N.W.A.’s records.
With Heller’s connections in the music business, the group gets their record released and begins touring the nation. N.W.A.’s unfiltered and unrestrained approach to their lyrics and the urban gangster imagery embraced by the group earns them critical praise. However, they become the target of much scrutiny by censorship groups and they also attract the attention of the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies. The controversy stirred up by N.W.A.’s songs make them legends of hip hop, but the threats of violence take an emotional toll. The group begins to fall apart when Ice Cube suspects that Heller and Wright’s partnership has cheated the other members out of royalties they all deserve.
Straight Outta Compton has the usual elements expected from musical artist biopics, but that doesn’t take away much from the impact of this film. Written by Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus, the movie not only provides an insightful look at the legendary group that goes beyond the legend, it also serves as a cautionary tale of the adversity and risks faced by hip hop artists in the music business. Gray and his writers focus mainly on the opposition faced by the group because of their audacity for speaking out against the racial profiling and brutalities committed by the police. They also get lambasted by censorship groups and media for providing an honest look at the frightening conditions of their city. The cautionary end of the story also deals with the trappings of success, including the risks that come with the excesses of fame. The overall result is a remarkable film that is completely absorbing, often entertaining, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Ice Cube’s real son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. heads a cast of gifted actors. Not only does he look almost exactly like his father, but the young actor has the acting chops to deliver a performance that is more than just an amusing imitation. I was also rather impressed with Jason Mitchell, who stars as Eazy E. He not only brings the perfect attitude to the role, he also shows a more poignant and heartfelt side to Eric Wright. Paul Giamatti delivers a mostly great performance as Jerry Heller, but has a few cartoonish moments. I suppose his all-too-obvious hairpiece and makeup doesn’t quite help either.
Otherwise, though, the film never comes across as cartoonish. F.Gary Gray and his crew have taken the story seriously, but have also included some lovely moments of levity. Because of the raw, mostly unbridled language and content of the film, I’m sure the film won’t appeal to more reserved and conservative audiences. I do truly believe that fans of the group and hip hop in general will absolutely love this movie. Since police misconduct is a hot topic in the news again, I feel that this movie is as necessary as the songs of N.W.A. were back in 1988. In fact, their music will always be relevant as long as cops keep getting out of line and race relations remain strained.