Stop me if you heard this before: a group of teenagers dream to break free of their daily life and become something bigger than their surroundings or what is expected of them.
If you feel like you’ve heard that story before, it’s because you have. Even so, director F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” is thrilling and propulsive, telling the story of infamous rap group N.W.A. The movie hits the expected beats of this kind of story – chronicling the rise and fall of a musical group – but every minute of it is intoxicating and electrifying. Even in the final act when the narrative slows down, “Straight Outta Compton” is still engaging and never boring.
Going into the movie, I knew next to nothing about N.W.A., which helped make the film more enjoyable for me. This movie will work for fans and newcomers alike, allowing audience members to learn about the group or reflect on one of the most influential and ballyhooed rap groups of the 90s.
As always, the movie starts with a hope and a dream. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is trying to make it as a DJ. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son) spends his days writing lyrics in his notebook. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is the fast-talking hustler with some money in his pocket. Dr. Dre approaches Eazy-E with the idea of going into business to start something on their own. Eazy-E puts the money up to get them some studio time, along with Dj Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge).
They start recording and getting gigs and catch the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a music manager that has the connections that could get their music heard. Jerry is originally struck with Eazy-E’s record but under Jerry they begin N.W.A, exploding onto the rap scene. They sell out shows, their record sales are through the roof and they are what everyone in the music world is talking about. Not bad for a couple of guys from Compton.
Their first album features arguably their most controversial song. After a few run-ins with the police, Ice Cube pens the song “Fuck the Police”, which they are told they can’t play at a concert in Detroit. “Straight Outta Compton” raises some thought-provoking questions about N.W.A.’s arguments about First Amendment rights. Do they have the right to perform any of the songs they want or should they be censored due to their riotous lyrics? The movie wisely doesn’t spoon-feed an answer or make a case for either side.
Censorship continues to be an issue artists have to face in today’s entertainment industry. Set in the late 80s and early 90s, a lot of “Straight Outta Compton” feels strangely reminiscent of the world we live in today. Creative issues, police brutality and communities looting are seen throughout the movie and are images that could have been pulled off of last night’s newscast. It gives the movie a strange sense of reality and sad realization that not much has changed since the time the movie is set. It makes the film’s impact much more powerful.
Adding to the impact are the performances of these young actors. Jackson Jr., Hawkins and Mitchell are fiercely confident as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, respectively. Funny and brash, arrogant and vulnerable, these are some of the most assured performances I have seen by up-and-coming actors in a long time. Mitchell steals every scene he is in as Eazy-E.
Gray keeps what could have been a daunting 150-minute runtime moving relatively smoothly, infusing energy and beauty into every frame of the movie. Working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Darren Aronofsky’s go-to DP), they capture the grit of the streets and the flash of the performance scenes. This is a surprisingly visually immersive film.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ rates 8 out of 10