A years-spanning saga that tells the story of the rise, fall and ramifications of the L.A. hip-hop group N.W.A. — Niggaz Wit Attitudes — “Straight Outta Compton” has the energy of gangsta rap even as it keeps to a conventional structure we’ve seen before in everything from “The Buddy Holly Story” to “The Doors.” Early obscurity and effort-laden struggle become mainstream success; controversy becomes publicity; too much happens too soon.
Directed by F. Gary Gray (whose connection to N.W.A. founding member Ice Cube goes back to some of Gray’s earliest work as a video and feature director), the film has a sprawling 150-minute running time, and while the energy may flag in the film’s back half, it never lacks for something to say or to show us.
Opening in 1986 in the South Central L.A. neighborhood that gives the film — and one of N.W.A.’s first singles — its name, Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) — later to be known as Eazy-E — pops the trunk of his car, wrestles a speaker out of its cabinet, and takes a gun and cocaine from under it to go sell some product. He knows there’s no long-term future in moving those goods, and Eric soon begins to wonder if the bravery and hustle he brings to slinging drugs could be applied to other endeavors.
We first see Eric’s friend Andre Young (Corey Hawkins) lying atop a spread of Parliament, Zapp Band and James Brown albums. A talented DJ, Andre — later to become famous as Dr. Dre — spins at a club with Antoine Carraby (Neil Brown Jr.), who also goes by DJ Yella; Lorenzo Patterson (Aldis Hodge), aka MC Ren, is another friend. Meanwhile, O’Shea Jackson, who raps under the name Ice Cube, writes verses for his friends to put over Dre and Yella’s beats even while he’s ostensibly working with another crew. (Taking the role of the lyrical gangsta is Cube’s actual son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who has his father’s sly smile and expressive eyes.)
Dre convinces Eric to put some of his drug-trade money into starting a record label; Eric turns out to be a natural behind the mic. The five come together like fingers forming a fist. They make what they call “Reality Rap” — a mix of journalism from the mean streets, crime fiction and cautionary tales — that soon becomes the sound of the city, bumped from every car by listeners captivated by Ice Cube’s writing, Dre’s production and Eazy’s natural flair for tales of trouble.
History, as they say, is written by the winners, and musical biopics tend to be written or at least produced by the songwriters and the survivors. Dr. Dre is one of the many producers here, as is Ice Cube, and the film puts many of the group’s early legal and financial troubles squarely on the shoulders of Eazy-E. Wright died of AIDS in 1995, and various nefarious goings-on are laid on him and on manager Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti as an old-school music-business type who loves to see his acts shoot up the charts even as he’s trying to sneak bad contracts past them.
Gray and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”) have crafted a vibrant, glowingly handsome film even when it’s focusing a bit too hard on the factual and temporal milestones of the band’s later career in its third act. Libatique captures both subtle glances between troubled collaborators through the glass of the close-quarters recording studio and the sprawling excess and crushed mass of huge bacchanalian parties and crowded concert scenes.
There are a few bravura moments of direction — a gliding Steadicam shot through a post-show hotel-suite party is both glamorous and seedy — but Gray also keeps the story moving without calling too much attention to his own presence. The script, by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman (from a story by Alan Wenkus and S. Lee Savidge) goes beyond the group’s formation and later implosion to show us events like the arrival of menacing bodyguard-turned-record-executive-turned-criminal Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), as well as Dre’s proteges Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield of “Short Term 12,”, nailing the rapper’s sinuous, lazy drawl) and Tupac (Marcc Rose); at times, “Straight Outta Compton” feels less like a conventional making-of-a-band film and more like a slightly oversized history of hip-hop since 1986.
The film shows the context and commerce of the group’s notoriety, never shying away from the casual racism of the ’80s-era LAPD. As the Rodney King beating, trial, verdict and riots bloom and burn all around the group as a major part of the film, real-life news footage of concerned anchors fretting about “Gangsta Rap” enters the mix. But the film makes no bones about the fact that Compton was a place where it was easier to find a gun than a job, and as Eazy-E responds to a pointed question about whether their music causes violence in the ‘hood, “Compton has AK-47’s from Russia and cocaine from Columbia, and ain’t none of us got passports; look to the source.”
The performances are uniformly strong, with some standouts. Jackson’s startling resemblance to his father shouldn’t obscure his very real thespian heavy lifting, while Mitchell reveals the mix of ambition and insecurity in Eazy-E, not to mention his real remorse about what happened to his friends as money and misunderstanding tore them apart. Corey Hawkins, as the man who would become Dr. Dre, manages to capture the arc of an artist who went from sleeping on friend’s couches to running some of the most lucrative — and influential — record labels of our time; it’s quiet work, but it shines with truth.
N.W.A.’s actual music might as well be another cast member, and the group’s singles — shocking then, still powerful now — are presented as the product of work, skill and will even as they pulse and spring from the speakers with hiss-tick treble and booming, omnipotent bass. The film doesn’t have much use for its female characters — they’re either gyrating party-goers, supportive girlfriends or gyrating party-goers who become supportive girlfriends — and the movie’s focus on Dre, Eazy and Cube (plus Heller) gives short shrift to the very real contributions of DJ Yella and MC Ren as well as to the actors playing them.
Underneath the gunshots and the battle raps, “Straight Outta Compton” is a fairly conventional movie about a music group, somewhere between hero-making and the honest truth. Even with the film’s mild flaws and arms-wide-open approach, it tells a powerful, engaging and compelling story of how America challenged and changed five young black men, and how they in turn challenged and changed America.