N.W.A have, is, and always will be integral to hip hop and it’s status as one of the most unique, and accessible, forms of self-expression in music. Birthed in the excessively rough neighbourhood of Compton, California, the group became a reference point for hip hop as a channel through which youth can make sense of their surrounds for both themselves and others. It was then so important that Director F. Gary Gray and co-producers O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Tomica Woods-Wright (Eazy-E’s widow), and Andre “Dr Dre” Young create a biopic befitting NWA’s legacy, contextualising the group’s hard-hitting lyrics so the world understands where these five artists came from, what eventually tore them apart, and how their legacy went on to permeate the music industry. It certainly helps having arguably the two central artists of the group at the helm of the project, and while this may have led to some slightly biased recollection, for the most part Dre and Cube have delivered a well balanced, focused piece of work detailing their meteoric rise with other group members Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella, and manager Jerry Heller.
Straight Outta Compton pulls on all the usual music biopic tropes but benefits from sharp, blockbuster direction from Gray, who has a penchant for balancing action with group drama, the best example of which is his work on 1996 hood-heist film Set It Off. The accomplished Director brings a similar sense of grandiosity here with certain scenes, especially those to do with the police force, who are painted as menacing and aggressive with looming, fluid shots of blinding sirens overcrowding L.A streets. Even in the opening scene, police are heavy and inescapable as they chase Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) out of a dope house with a terrifying mobile battering ram. Throughout the film, there is a noticeable bias against the L.A.P.D, but it’s a necessary portrayal to fully understand why N.W.A, and particularly Ice Cube (portrayed with confidence by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr), displayed the raw rage and frustration that made their music what it was.
Little is left out of the main narrative that follows Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube – connected through Dre’s cousin Jinx (Cleavon McClendon) as they eventually convince Eazy, a local drug dealer, to put some money behind starting a rap group. With Dre’s couching, Eazy quickly turns out a local smash hit (“Boyz n The Hood”) which grabs the attention of fast-talker Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who helps legitimise the group in the eyes of the wider music industry.
With DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodg), who are barely fleshed out as characters and take an increasingly rapid step into the background as the film goes on, N.W.A are tracked as they rise to a world recognised position, their incendiary, highly socio-political tracks illustrated by the usual hood film narrative as L.A is explored with equal parts fear and respect.
This is all, of course, centered around exciting, sharp studio sessions and live performances from dusty clubs to arenas across the U.S. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique is especially valuable here, bringing a seamless touch to the performances, zipping in and around the arena to show how much of an effect N.W.A had on both their fans and the police present at their shows. The storied show in Detroit, where despite police warnings N.W.A performed anti-establishment classic “Fuck the Police”, is one of the stand-out scenes of the film, closing in on Ice Cube’s famously furrowed brows as he builds up to that big moment before police storm the stage.
Jackson Jr is given the lion’s share of concise, to-the-point dialogue like “our art is a reflection of our reality” and “speak a little truth and people lose their minds”, summing up N.W.A’s music perfectly as the film transitions from a fun and exciting rags-to-riches story into a tense, complex exploration of the different stages that tore N.W.A apart.
The real life animosity between Heller and the surviving members of N.W.A could have easily led to an excessively villainous portrayal, and while things certainly do slide towards that in the end, the crew treat Heller’s character with a good sense of fairness, depicting him as an instrumental part of the N.W.A’s initial success and someone who deeply cared for Eazy, his business partner. Less complex is the straight-up bad guy Suge Knight, who is given an unremarkable but appropriately cold portrayal from R Marcos Taylor.
Knight being the straw that broke the camel’s back is not downplayed here, showing how he muscled his way in between Dre and Eazy so he could start Death Row Records with the prodigious producer. The brunt of animosity between Dr Dre and Eazy E is strangely left out of the film though (“Dre Day”, “Real Motherphuckin G’s”), but certainly not Ice Cube’s bitter departure which spawns another film highlight via the caustic “No Vaseline”.
Both uncomfortable and slightly humourous, the remaining members of the group are shown reacting to Ice Cube’s famous diss track after the sharp-edged rapper left the group due to contract issues. Heller has the most passionate reaction against Cube’s apparent antisemitism and condemns the lyricist, a feeling he still holds onto today.
Impressively tracking a timeline that goes far beyond N.W.A as a group, Straight Outta Compton addresses pivotal moments such as Eazy-E’s untimely death and Dre’s conflict with Suge Knight after helping build artists like Snoop Dogg Keith Stanfield and Tupac (Marcc Rose), allowing both Mitchell and Hawkins ample space to show off their careful and in-the-moment performances, putting them up there with stand-outs Jackson Jr and Giamatti.
There is so much going on around the rise and fall of N.W.A, such as the Rodney King beatings, and it must have been tempting for the team to explore certain moments with more depth, but the narrative stays strongly committed to N.W.A as a group and as solo artists (Cube, Eazy, and Dre at least), only briefly touching on their personal lives, scenes vetted by relevance to their individual careers and to the group as a whole.
Fun to watch, funny to watch – listen out for the two clever Friday references – and mostly, important to watch, Straight Outta Compton is much more than just another music biopic; hard, taut lessons about the music industry, free speech, and also the various threats and issues unique to hip hop, are embedded in this carefully paced narrative, surprisingly tracking all the way up until the last few years. Great acting and incredible direction is just a bonus.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running time: 147 minutes
Straight Outta Compton is in Australian cinemas as of Thursday 3rd September