Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (“Friday”)
Written by: Jonathan Herman (debut) and Andrea Berloff (“World Trade Center”)
I’m probably too young and too white and nerdy to have been into—or even aware of—gangsta rap group N.W.A. at the height of their fame in the early ‘90s. I was a “Weird Al” Yankovic and They Might Be Giants fan, and being from South Texas as opposed to South Central, the death of Selena Quintanilla was a bigger factor in my life than the death of Eazy-E was five days earlier in March of 1995. But since I’m a human being in the United States tuned in to pop culture, the last two decades have left me familiar with the notable surviving members of N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, from the former’s softening into a mildly annoyed family movie star to the latter’s rise to the ranks of billionaire after unleashing Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Beats headphones into the world. Cube and Dre both serve as producers on “Straight Outta Compton,” a strikingly-good biopic on the rise of the “dangerous” reality rap group and its late front man that roars out of the gate with ferocity until stalling in the home stretch as the two moguls paint their legacies on film in decidedly positive terms.
The opening shot of the film follows Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) through a drug deal in 1986 Compton, a tense situation broken up by an LAPD tank-mounted battering ram destroying the drug house. E escapes by the skin of his teeth, and the movie moves on to O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his own father) writing rhymes on the school bus as it’s hijacked by gangbangers who threaten the teenagers on board throwing gang signs out the window. Finally we’re introduced to Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) grooving to R&B records on headphones, blissfully unaware that he’s missing a job interview set up by his mother, instead focusing on a DJ gig later at a nightclub where Dre plans on giving Ice Cube some time onstage to spit rhymes, much to the owner’s dismay. Realizing there may be a future in this rap game, Dre and Cube convince E to put up some of his drug money to record some songs. The track that gives the movie its title, “Straight Outta Compton,” is a mega-hit, attracting the attention of music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who sends the group on the road to both superstardom and inter-personal conflicts over money and respect spanning nine years.
With a first third that’s uniformly excellent, featuring electrifying live performance recreations and “aha!” moments behind famous lyrics, it allows for the film’s flaws in the last hour and a half to be more easily overlooked. By the time Ice Cube goes solo, punctuated with a fantastic back-and-forth sequence set to Cube’s epic diss track “No Vaseline,” the movie gets too caught up in both the back and forth of contract disputes and touching on seminal moments in gangsta rap history, like how Dre met both Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) and checking in on how Cube’s screenplay for “Friday” is coming along. The personalities of the surviving members feel a little sanitized, too, from the suspicious lack of drug use by a group fronted with drug money to the glossing over of real-life controversies like Cube’s anti-Semitism and Dre’s violence toward women. Only the character of Eazy-E gets any real conflict and nuance, probably only because he’s dead and has no million-dollar brand to protect (DJ Yella and MC Ren are firmly in “…and the rest” territory as far the movie is concerned). But history is written by the winners, and the story we’re left with is a really great one.