3.5 out of 4 stars
Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about iconic and controversial gangsta rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes), really isn’t a movie – it’s three.
The first is how the group formed in mid-1980s amid the violence of Compton; the second centers on the group’s rise to stardom before Dr. Dre and Ice Cube left to pursue solo careers; and finally, the death of Eazy-E from AIDS in 1995.
But it’s how brilliantly director F. Gary Gray seamlessly weaves the three together to explain the meteoric rise to stardom of the group who polarized a nation by doing – and saying – things their way.
Was N.W.A the king or pioneers of gangsta rap? Nope, not in the eyes of Ice Cube, who makes a point in the movie to define the group as “street reporters” delivering “reality rap.”
Police officers, the government and anyone who grew up where bullets didn’t provide a nighttime lullaby probably viewed N.W.A as drug-dealing street thugs who preached about promiscuity, pot and pistols — the Holy Trinity of Street Life.
But for those growing up in lower-income neighborhoods, N.W.A.’s music painted a picture of what they also saw when they looked out the window, with each lyric a brush stroke in a portrait that the rest of the America didn’t want to see.
Well, everyone gets a good look now.
Straight Outta Compton by no means glamorizes the group because let’s face it, there’s nothing glamorous about N.W.A, from their scowls to their desire to rebel against authority, namely the police.
Straight Outta Compton, which was named after the album that signaled hip-hop and rap and protest music of its era, starts in 1986. That’s when N.W.A’s DNA was formed, when a young rapper named O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube) and his friend, an up-and-coming DJ named Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, convince local drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright to bankroll a music label that would be known as Ruthless Records.
It’s hard to take your eyes of Eazy-E, played by Jason Mitchell, who is the first N.W.A. member to grasp rap’s business side by signing a deal behind his boys’ backs with veteran music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti with a sweet toupe). And before you can rap the words to “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” Eazy-E and Jerry are dining on lobster and steak while the rest of the crew munches on Fatburger while playing shows from coast to coast.
That doesn’t sit well with Ice Cube, who takes over the movie fabulously. Ice Cube is played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. — the rapper’s son — who shines brighter than the gold chain in his film debut. The younger Jackson, through his his presence, quirks and language, mirrors his famous father exquisitely.
Corey Hawkins is convincing playing Dr. Dre, while Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge, who portray DJ Yella and MC Ren, respectively, come off believable. They’re complemented by R. Marcos Taylor, who is so good portraying Suge Knight it wouldn’t be surprising to see him land a starring role in a spin-off, and Keith Stanfield makes the most of his face time as an aspiring rapper from Long Beach named Snoop Dogg.
Straight Outta Compton, with its profanity, gratuitous nudity and rage-inspired lyrics, is by no means a pretty picture to watch. But at its core, the 147-minute story accomplishes exactly what it’s supposed to do: Tell how five teenagers from a place no one dreams about living in became the kings of rap.
And a voice of their generation.
Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 19 years of experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game.