Straight Outta Compton is a film that brilliantly captures the energy of a group of friends raging against the post-industrial machine in a city on the brink of eruption.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton tells the story of N.W.A, one of the most notorious and iconic rap groups in music history, and how the members climbed from the ghetto to musical superstardom against all odds.
The group’s seminal album, which gave birth to gangsta rap with hits such as “F—k Tha Police,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Express Yourself” and “Dopeman,” lends its name to a coming-of-age tale about a group of talented friends, living in a world marked by crime, violence, and constant police occupation and surveillance. These boys in the hood were searching for a way out of the ghetto and found it through music, poetry, collaboration and consciously choosing to pursue a different world.
Gray, who hails from Los Angeles, humanizes the maligned members of the supergroup, showcasing the complexity and interconnectedness of their lives and musical genius. He peels away the layers of men who started out as boys with literally a pen and a pad and two 1600 turntables.
Part of the pleasure of the film is not only reliving the memorable pop-culture moments but also seeing the humanity of the characters, who are often regarded as one-dimensional thugs who made it big by glamorizing violence and spouting misogynistic lyrics.
Gray shows audiences that the men behind the mic are funny, sensitive, tough, abusive, naive, violent, obstinate, agreeable, conscious, lewd—complicated in the ways that many young people, who are finding their way in a world that is not welcoming to them, can be.
Gray, who began his career as a music-video director, masterfully brings the music, culture and politics of the time to the big screen with the same ferocity the talented group brought to hip-hop culture in the late 1980s.
Gray’s direction is matched by incredible acting performances by Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (who plays his real-life father, Ice Cube) and Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller). Hawkins, a graduate of Juilliard, leads a crew of actors that transform into their characters by dodging the pitfalls of mimicry that can mar biopics. They are a unit on-screen, reflecting the two years of auditions and rehearsals that went into the film.
Mitchell’s haunting performance as Eazy-E is nuanced and award-worthy. Eazy-E’s Napoleonic rap persona is unearthed to reveal a man so eager to find a father figure (Heller) that he sacrifices everything in the process. Ice Cube’s integrity at a young age is on full display, as is Dr. Dre’s leadership and ability to bring out the greatness from the most unlikely stars.
It is clear while watching the film that legendary rapper-turned-media mogul O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and superproducer-turned-billionaire businessman Andre “Dr. Dre” Young had a heavy hand in the making of the film.
Coupled with a well-written script by relative newcomer Andrea Berloff, Straight Outta Compton weaves together the politics of the time (Reaganomics and the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings), the energy of a generation, and the story of discarded youth whose voices forever changed the landscape of hip-hop and put an impoverished city living in the shadow of glamorous Hollywood on the world map.
The involvement of those who actually lived the N.W.A experience, which is an asset in one regard, is also its greatest liability. The film overlooks the misogynistic history of some of the men in the group. Major events like Dr. Dre’s legendary beatdown of show host Dee Barnes and his rocky relationship with R&B chanteuse Michel’le, with whom he has a child, aren’t even brought into the storyline.
Filmmakers always struggle with which story to tell, but this film missed a major opportunity to bring important stories to the screen. The absence of fully dimensional women in the lives of the men of N.W.A is glaring, especially in the presence of such a complex depiction of men. On a much different note, reducing a game-changing group like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and its association with Eazy-E to an audiotape is just plain wrong.
Despite these drawbacks, Straight Outta Compton is still an amazing film that captures a tumultuous period of time—not very different from the lives of black and brown people today—and the birth of a movement that changed the course of hip-hop music and culture forever.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.