Straight Outta Compton
From Johnny Cash in Walk the Line to Ray Charles in Ray, musicians make incredibly compelling subjects for biographical feature films. After all, it is the life of the artist that inspires and informs their craft, so to have an insider’s perspective on the life stories behind chart-topping hits is too intriguing to resist.
But among these kinds of films, there has yet to be one that captures the same amount of anger, frustration, and passion behind music – that is, until Straight Outta Compton finally rolled around. The film catalogs the rise and fall of controversial 90’s rap group N.W.A, whose music also contains that exact visceral fervor within each beat, rhyme, and lyric.
Rap fans and audiophiles already know the musical and cultural impact of N.W.A’s debut studio album of the same name. It not only brought gangsta rap to prominence in the music industry, but it also relayed the tumultuous ghetto life to the forefront of public consciousness. Where the film adaptation succeeds is by doing the exact same in movie form, effectively capturing the spirit of the album and deserving of its title.
Straight Outta Compton opens in a big way, as Eric Wright, the soon-to-be-rapper Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) narrowly escapes a police raid -complete with a tank equipped with a battering ram – on a Compton, California home. It’s merely the beginning of a series of setbacks and struggles experienced by N.W.A’s founding members. Music aficionado Andre Young (the eventual Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins) faces mounting pressure by his mother to find a respectable job and to quit wasting time producing music. Lyricist O’Shea Jackson, also known as Ice Cube (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., the real-life son of Ice Cube and the only appropriate choice to play his father) comes to a head with the threat of gang violence on his own school bus. Although less attention is given to the lives of rappers DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), they still do receive ample screen time.
The amount of ground that Straight Outta Compton covers in two-and-a-half hours is astonishing. Memorable beats and iconic lyrics spring forth within collaboration between members. The underbelly of the music industry is exposed, mostly through the dealings of N.W.A’s agent Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). There is even a detailed painting of the constant, looming threat of police brutality and systemic oppression by law enforcement, which all of the members experience in one degree or another – simply for the color of their skin. In one scene, the rap group and Heller find themselves harassed by police simply for standing on a sidewalk, and racial epithets are constantly hurled at the men. In the next, Ice Cube begins recording “Fuck tha Police.”
That’s just one example of how Straight Outta Compton retells the life experiences of the rappers to unveil the inspiration behind hit N.W.A tracks. But the film is equally as interested in how the group adjusts to the many obstacles sent their way by their exponential rise to fame and notoriety, and this is how Straight Outta Compton expands beyond the founding of its namesake album. The members form partnerships and contract disputes rear their ugly heads. Much like their lifestyle growing up in Compton, the story of N.W.A has almost no happy endings, but the film tells them in an incredibly poignant and unadulterated manner.
But not to be forgotten, though, was the group’s immediate impact on popular culture and law enforcement, the latter of which proves to be one of their biggest enemies as they continue to rise in fame. With law enforcement threating the group not play “Fuck tha Police” in a Detroit concert hall, N.W.A blatantly disregards the orders, which eventually sets off a shooting and a subsequent riot. Coupled with multiple references to the Rodney King riots (which occurred around the time of the group’s prominence) this scene and others like it serve as powerful testaments to the struggles faced by the rap group and their friends, family, and neighbors across the country. And with the scenes closely paralleling modern events in Ferguson and Baltimore, Straight Outta Compton resonates with modern audiences as well.
Of course, there’s no denying that the success and widespread popularity of the N.W.A members afforded them a better lifestyle than the one they previously lived in Compton, but Straight Outta Compton is also concerned with how the artists maintain attitudes learned in their hometown in a vastly white collar, high-class space. In a payment dispute, Ice Cube takes a baseball bat to a record producer’s once-impeccable office. In another scene, Heller warns Eazy-E: “We fight with lawsuits, not bullets.” The artists’ way of doing business as usual is documented so well by the film that it makes for quite the culture shock. As a result, Straight Outta Compton achieves a powerful authenticity that could only be rivaled by the best documentaries.
Straight Outta Compton very much parallels its namesake album in providing an unfiltered and unadulterated look at the life story of living in a Los Angeles ghetto, and the systemic oppression that comes with it. But where the film goes to a new level is in exploring the lives of N.W.A.’s members, and doing so in such a memorably visceral fashion. Few other movies achieve the raw power that this one delivers, and that rawness makes for an unforgettable, in-your-face movie experience, where the themes are as relevant today as they were in 1991.
Written by Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
Starring O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and Paul Giamatti.