N.W.A. hit the world like an atom bomb, exposing a side of life that existed unseen by the majority. Safe in suburban enclaves, much of America reacted to their debut record, Straight Outta Compton, with revulsion—its gritty depictions of life as a young, black male in California were too much for many to bear. Violent, profane, and raw, the record served, in a way, as a slice of guerilla journalism, bringing tales of hardship and brutality to the attention of individuals who were heretofore unaware of what life was like in the streets and ghettoes of the USA. It launched the careers of a few of rap’s heaviest hitters and served as the foundation of several dynasties within the world of hip hop. Controversial even to this day, N.W.A.’s story is, in many ways, the story of rap’s golden years. Their formation signaled the end of rap’s innocent youth and the beginning of its tumultuous and rebellious adolescence.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood got their hands on this story. Filled with drama, intrigue, twists, and larger than life characters, it’s a tale that begs to be told. It runs parallel to some of the most important moments of the late 20th century—the acceptance of the masses regarding the existence of police brutality, the unrest of the LA riots, the rise of the religious right, and the attempts at censoring the expression of musicians—and offers a unique perspective on events that rocked our society.
Taking its title from NWA’s seminal debut, Straight Outta Compton handles the story of the group with all the reverence it deserves. It’s a balanced look at the group’s early days, their rise to prominence, and the fallout of their break up that holds nothing back in its exploration of NWA and the dynamics that propelled them. Unflinching, objective, and honest, Straight Outta Compton is the first hip hop biopic to do justice to its subjects and it’s one of the best movies of the summer.
Working from a remarkable script by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, and under the direction of F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton explores the lives of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real life son), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) from NWA’s inception to Eazy-E’s death in 1995. This is a story that’s been told countless times in music magazines, but it’s handled here with a lot of heart and told with painstaking accuracy that, at times, almost feels less like a movie and more like a documentary—I caught myself more than once having to remember that I was watching actors instead of being treated to exclusive footage of their real life counterparts.
The film focuses primarily on the dynamics between Dre, Cube, and E and their establishment as a west coast dynasty under the guidance of legendary band manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Heller is the man arguably most responsible for bringing N.W.A. to the public consciousness as well as the man arguably most responsible for their eventual breakup. He was an old school manager, one whose business practices didn’t jive with the rising stars and led to tension within the group before, one by one, they went their separate ways. He’s played as a villain in Straight Outta Compton, but one without nefarious intentions. Call it a case of generational or social gaps, Giamatti brings nuance to the role and treats his subject fairly.
This is a running theme through the movie. Portrayals are honest and fair, never shying away from the flaws of its characters. Hawkins, Jackson, and Mitchell absolutely embody their roles—no easy feat, given the prominence their characters have in real life—taking them from youth to adulthood and death with dignity and grace. This is at play even among the supporting characters, the likes of which include Death Row co-founder Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) and The D.O.C. (Marlon Yates Jr.). Even Snoop and Tupac make appearances as characters, adding further depth to the story.
Straight Outta Compton feels especially poignant in today’s world, given all the unrest and mistrust going on in our supposedly post-racial society. While it’s true many gains have been made, it wasn’t hard to draw comparisons between then and now, especially in regards to the relationship the black community has with law enforcement. The harassment experienced by N.W.A. in their youth—prior to even becoming a band—is mirrored by the harassment of today’s black youth, forcing the audience to consider what lay in the heart of the anti-establishment philosophy that inspired the anthem “Fuck the Police” and how that mentality continues to this day. And the film accomplishes this without being overly preachy or agenda pushing. Largely, the audience is left to draw their own conclusions while the film contextualizes the perceived militancy of N.W.A. and its members.
The album Straight Outta Compton first entered my rotation back in junior high, and it’s largely stayed a part of my regular listening for the last twenty or so years, but you don’t need to be a fan of N.W.A. or of hip hop in general to enjoy this movie. In fact, there really isn’t anything new here for the longtime fans, most of whom probably know the story in and out anyway. Still, it’s a film that begs to be seen. It’s filled with knock-out performances top to bottom, and a script that’s funny, dramatic, poignant, and heartbreaking. It’s reverent without being ass-kissing and eye opening without beating you over the head. Not everyone will enjoy Straight Outta Compton, just like not everyone enjoyed N.W.A.—but neither the group nor the film is meant to be enjoyed by everyone. However, like the album that inspired it, Straight Outta Compton hits all the right notes in all the right places, making for a remarkable and thought provoking entertainment experience.
Straight Outta Compton is in theaters now.