Years in the making, fortuitous in its casting, engrossing and thorough, “Straight Outta Compton” is pretty much all you could hope for in a biopic of the seminal L.A. rap group N.W.A.
Director F. Gary Gray delivers his best work, on a different plane from B-movie junk such as “Law Abiding Citizen,” and gives us a straightforward, overlong account of five young men’s rise from working class obscurity to icons of the music world, and lightning rods for criticism as they rapped about police harassment and brutality on the black community.
The script is most pointed in that last regard, capturing the Rodney King era (@1991) that gave birth to the group, reminding us that not much has changed in the decades since “F*** tha Police.”
It has a definite point of view, framed within the story of Eric “Easy-E” Wright — a drug dealer, narrowly escaping a police raid (a handheld camera chase) in the opening, dying of AIDS at the end. The film celebrates and sides with stars Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), the producer-entrepreneur, and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), the street poet, posturing OG and soul of the group, and all but ignores the two DJs of the quintet.
But the script (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) lets us see the way they turned on the manager who made them (Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti), the hints of anti-Semitism that crept into their accusations. The guns, drugs and thug life culture they rapped about is shown, along with its ugly consequences.
And from start to finish, there’s a generous helping of the misogyny — objectifying-never-knowing women, vast parties of nubile, willing groupies that they devoured and discarded, baby mamas included.
It’s a slack film, as this 105 minute subject earns a grandiose two and a half hours of screen time. Scenes whose chief point is for somebody to say, “What’s up, ‘Pac?”, introducing Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg into the continuum, eat up the latter third. “Notorious” remains the best hip hop era musical bio-pic for those reasons.
But Gray is careful to get plenty of context in here — the lives they lived and the world they observed and wrote about. A teenage Ice Cube sees his school bus pulled over by a carload of gangsters who feel “disrespected.” And at every turn, cops get in their business, push them to the ground and call them “Nigger.” Because they could, in that age before cell-phone cameras.
The three leads are solid, with Jackson Jr. capturing the whipsmart sarcasm and knowing sneer his dad made famous. Giamatti is on-the-money as the sympathetic white guy who seems, from the start, to be manipulating them and taking advantage.
But towering over the performances is R. Marcos Taylor’s hulking presence as Suge Knight, the bodyguard turned thug-manager, beating up talent, menacing stars and other managers alike. Taylor makes the Knight of scary legend come to life.
I like the way, too, the film scans the growing sophistication of the music, from the Mickey Mouse rhyme-on-the-beat patter of their early work to the breakout “Straight Outta Compton” LP.
It all adds up to a terrific, if biased on the side of the winners (Dre and Cube) history lesson, and a thoroughly compelling, very American and utterly modern musical biography.
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor
Credits: Directed by F. Gary Gray, script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff .
A Universal release.
Running time: 2:27