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Straight Outta Compton | Review

Cruisin’ Down the Street: Gray Returns to Relevance with Biopic of Iconic Rap Group

straight_outta_compton_posterDirector F. Gary Gray will forever hold a seminal spot in 90s cinema thanks to helming Friday (1995), a gig he landed after directing an Ice Cube music video. Now, twenty years later, they reunite excitingly in Straight Outta Compton, Gray’s depiction of the rise, fall, and continuing tangential cultural influence of controversial rap group N.W.A., founded famously by Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E in the late 80s. Though it would be an impossible feat to satisfy every faction with this sort of ambitious reenactment, Gray and screenwriters Andrea Berlof and Jonathan Herman do a remarkable job of capturing the humanity behind the collaboration of a controversial music group notoriously reviled upon their initial denouement. With searing forcefulness, Gray also magnifies the continued importance behind the awareness N.W.A. sparked in regards to police brutality, a landscape that has evolved with much less progression than hoped for since the acidic anger of their most infamous anthem, “Fuck the Police.”

School friends Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) attend school and pursue their dreams despite the vicious lack of opportunity around them in 1986 Compton. Dre is pursuing his career as a DJ, sleeping on a friend’s couch with his daughter and girlfriend following a break with his own mother, who has demanded he find a more useful means of employment. Cube is a burgeoning lyricist, committed to another group already, but performing on stage at the club Dre works at when the boss isn’t looking, a man who agrees with popular opinion of the times that rap only inspires aggression, trouble, and eventually brings the cops sniffing around.

The LAPD pops up frequently, often unnecessarily, to wreak havoc and exert questionable control through brute force. Sadly, it’s a part of the daily grind. Dre is inspired to ask local dealer Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to fund a track written by Cube, which eventually is sung by Eazy and becomes “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” bringing in additional group members DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). The track garners the attention of has-been producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), and he connects N.W.A. with Priority Records, who releases the hit album Straight Outta Compton. Meanwhile Heller assists Eazy with his own label Ruthless Records. But as the provocative group begins to tour, discord breaks out concerning contracts.

In moments, here and there, it seems evident reality was ‘spruced’ up a bit for the purposes of dramatic effect. But seeing as the narrative is committed to showcasing the actual perspectives of their realities, these are hardly moments that mar the overall effect of the film. Music scholars are bound to nitpick about this and that, or the representation of several peripheral yet inarguably important figures like infamous Suge Knight, portrayed by R. Marcus Taylor with all the hulking foreboding of an impregnable, doomed villain’s origin story.

Written as a bully and unabashed leech, he comes off less charismatically than Giamatti’s (the only real distracting cast member) portrayal of manager Jerry Heller, a man given a little more room to move around the love/hate dynamics a manager/producer shares with his clients. Nevertheless, it’s clear these men combined become the toxic presence that ruins N.W.A. and sends the group members off in their own directions and eventual private wars with a whole slew of musical artists to come. Fleeting figures like Tupac and Snoop Dogg pop up, and one of the other edges Gray’s film has over similar biopics is the rights to the actual tracks.

Beginning with its breathless opening getaway during a police raid on a drug house in Compton, Gray’s film belts out a continuously energetic streak of performance, music, and raw aggression towards the bits and pieces of prejudice, racism, and other significant detriments of daily life culminating in the creation of a group whose tracks burst the door open for a flood of talented artists previously denied access to audiences hungry for their output.

Arguably glorifying violence and misogyny in their lyrics, many will note the lack of females in this narrative of N.W.A. (and often, they’re only on hand as examples of pleasure, distress, or trouble, like a comic hotel show down meant to convey the birth of the famous line, “Bye Felicia”). But then, why force something that wasn’t an integral part of the package in the first place? Instead, Straight Outta Compton does something better by attempting the unfashionable and treating its subjects with genuine integrity instead of the glossy mythos seen in other recent biopics like 2009’s Notorious or the sterilized made-for-television rendition of the TLC story, CrazySexyCool (2013).

Eerily reminiscent of his father, Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. remains one of the film’s most intriguing elements, giving an actual winning performance that goes beyond mere stunt casting. Also a revelation is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, imbuing the rapper’s problematic relationship with manager Jerry Heller necessary tragic depths that go beyond the general motions of these circumstances. Much of the magic of Straight Outta Compton, however, is based on the low expectations we’ve come to expect from these sorts of biopics. In essence, Gray is giving us the type of quality we should expect from those venturing to make narrative features about icons, though we’re unaccustomed to the empathetic generosity displayed here.

Compared to Gray’s previous decade of filmmaking, which includes likeable genre efforts like The Italian Job (2003) remake, the horribly miscalculated Be Cool in 2005, and a ludicrous revenge thriller, Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Straight Outta Compton has that exciting mix of anger and energy evident in his 1996 sophomore effort Set It Off.

Ending around the time of Eazy’s tragic demise, the film closes on a high note, hinting at the many accomplishments to come for Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. But even if the Middle America once terrified by their early combative words manages to embrace them today, remembering their convictions sadly points to the overwhelming progress still necessary, both in the arena of that topic termed ‘race relations’ (not to mention media representation) but also the jarring apathy of a music industry littered with artists having little to say.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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