Straight Outta Compton
Director: F. Gary Gray
Screenwriters: Johnathan Herman, Andrea Berloffk
Cast: Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge
Rated R | 147 Minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2015
On the surface, many biopics based on a music artist or group will probably follow the same old Behind the Music narrative of the successes, hardships, and downfalls of said career. Of course, the subject of those episodic documentaries have had some sort of significance, but few have had as much of an impact both in the music industry and culturally as NWA.
In F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, we see a dramatized version of the rise and fall of the rap group whose significance resonates even 30-plus years after their first studio album of the same name. It was because of NWA’s groundbreaking music that the world learned about Compton, CA, and South Central Los Angeles. But the film also covers what went on when the music stopped, revealing that meteoric success can’t stop an inevitable disbanding.
Straight Outta Compton chronicles the events of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) as they came together to form one of the first gangsta rap groups, NWA. Using their real-life experiences (from drug deals, police brutality, and black-on-black crime) as an influence for their lyrics. But as fast as they rose on the charts and in popularity, greed and manipulation would be their downfall. The group eventually split up, seeing the individual members off to pursue their own dreams and ambitions.
Now of course with every biopic, it’s going to feel very cookie cutter. Essentially, acts one through three are the same in almost every film like Straight Outta Compton. It’s unavoidable. But thankfully, the performances carry the movie. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is the spitting image of his father, Ice Cube, and does an excellent job of portraying the patriarch. It’s almost as if you were looking at Ice Cube himself. He did have 20 years of research to work with after all.
Corey Hawkins also takes command of the screen as Dr. Dre, the lead music producer for NWA. In fact, he was the one who helped discover Eazy-E’s talent for rapping, despite the rapper’s early objections. There is a lot of pressure when it comes to portraying someone like Dr. Dre, who is notorious for being a perfectionist. While he may not have the likeness visually, Hawkins does more than convince us that he is Dr. Dre; he has us believing that he is one in the same.
Throughout the film we see just how fast success comes to the group, and how easily swayed Eazy-E becomes when money and women are simply thrown at his feet. But Jason Mitchell captures the spirit of Eazy-E, with no living reference to work with, only having interviews and music videos to look back on. The idea is reinforced when Mitchell puts on those signature sunglasses, and begins to spit out rhymes.
As good as the performances are in the film, there are a few drawbacks. While Straight Outta Compton does an excellent job chronicling the group’s rise, it’s when it has to cover the members post-disbanding where is kind of falls apart. We see Dr. Dre move on to produce his own music for well known artists like Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac (Marcc Rose), but what should have felt like a nod to the greatest rap artists of our time felt more like it was forced to be in there. It wasn’t particularly well executed and just wasn’t organic. But to be fair, that was a moment in NWA’s history where the success of one member helped shape the person who Dre is today, and because of his success, Eazy-E’s downfall, both financially and health-wise, comes into the film.
Eazy-E died in 1995, losing his battle against AIDS. But before he died, he tried to make amends with the group. Acknowledging what he had done wrong, and severing ties with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Now the film doesn’t paint Heller as a villain, though he was something that drove a wedge between Eazy-E and the entire group. In fact, there were times where he had fought for the group, and their rights after cops arrested them without cause. Then there are those moments where Heller drives everyone into a corner to serve his own interests. So hats off to Gray for giving a balanced look at Heller.
The film also addresses how heinous acts like the Rodney King beating influenced their music. Each one of them feeling like they had to do something, but couldn’t because it was beyond their control. But what they could control was their rap diss. With Ice Cube the first to leave, the rapper went on the attack, targeting Eazy-E and Heller. While Dr. and the rest admit Cube’s work was clever, E and Heller weren’t having any of it, and came out with disses of their own, and it eventually reached a point where Heller got the JDL (Jewish Defense League) involved.
Yes, Straight Outta Compton does fall into the cookie cutter biopic pitfalls, which is unavoidable for any film biopic. But the strong performances uniformly carry out through the film, with none of the cast ever missing a beat or lyric. What Gray has done is show us how five young rap artists changed the world through music, and how that same music can still resonate today.