My Rating: 8 out of 10
I certainly got a lot of weird comments from some of my friends and family when I told them that I was going to see Straight Outta Compton. Some of them didn’t understand why a white guy that grew up in the suburbs would be interested in seeing a movie about one of the most notorious gangster rap groups in history, while other people asked if I would even be able to follow the plot with such a limited knowledge of the rappers in question. That second concern was something that I worried about going into the film, but I had faith that there would be relatable aspects to the story even if I didn’t have the same extensive knowledge of the subject matter that some fans would.
Being born in 1990, most of the plot of the film had already elapsed before I was even able to talk. I knew little more about the rap group N.W.A. outside of their controversial song Fuck the Police and the names of co-founders, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, but I was able to follow nearly everything as the writers did an excellent job of making both the characters and the story relatable. The biopic follows the rise of rap lyricist Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), beat maker Dr. Dre (played by Juilliard graduate, Corey Hawkins), and the bombastic frontman of N.W.A. Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell).
For die-hard fans of N.W.A., Ice Cube, Suge Knight, or Dr. Dre, this film is a must see! While I didn’t understand a lot of the references myself, there were plenty of moments that fans would have had a more intense reaction to, especially since they would know when something big was going to happen (for example: the ending, which completely took me by surprise). For non-fans on the other hand, Straight Outta Compton will still leave you at the edge of your seat. Even with a running time of over 2.5 hours and a plot that spans nearly 10 years, the film tells the exact kind of story it sets out to without lingering on any one scene for longer than necessary.
The strongest part of the film, which made it both exciting and relatable was the extremely realistic portrayal of the characters by all of the actors in the film. Even guys like Keith Stanfield (who played Snoop Dogg), who only appeared in a couple scenes, did their jobs flawlessly and created something that felt more like a documentary than a biopic. Every single person had so much depth, even people like Jerry (N.W.A.’s sleazy manager played by Paul Giamatti) and Suge Knight who could have easily been played as caricatures were extremely human and had likable aspects to their personalities. On top of this, the look of each character was spot on. I wasn’t sure while watching the movie if some of the rappers were actually making cameos or not, especially with O’Shea Jackson, Jr. on screen, who looks incredibly like a younger version of his father.
It was shocking to me that a movie about extremely famous gangster rappers would be so relatable to me, but I saw a bit of myself in each of the characters. I think I connected the most to Dr. Dre, who had to deal with the fact that his mother didn’t believe in his dreams before he got big, forcing him to sleep on couches in order to pursue his passion for DJing. Ice Cube is the brooding, intelligent, respectable guy, who knows when to back off, but also knows when to put his foot down. He’s the kind of guy that people look up to. Eazy-E is spunky and bombastic, but also seems very youthful and naive compared to his compatriots, which especially comes through in his dealings with Jerry.
Another thing that helped ground the subject matter of the film was the fact that while being very original, the presentation was similar to that of many other stories where characters from less than desirable beginnings are able to work hard and become rich and/or famous. In this case, the characters were based off of real people, but the general idea is the same. It is also for this reason that I think the argument many people make about Straight Outta Compton glorifying violence or demeaning women is a little blown out of proportion. Those are elements of the story for sure and will definitely offend some viewers, but the crux of the movie is about dealing with the negative ramifications of a quick rise to fame.
As in any film (documentary, biopic, or fictional tale) about famous artists, there will almost always be some unsavory aspects, but there is also a powerful message to these sorts of films about how money and popularity can change things in your life and could even destroy you. And the characters in Straight Outta Compton certainly struggle with the difficulties associated with becoming some of the most influential rappers who ever lived. While these men weren’t major figures in history, they did play an enormous role in musical culture in the passed thirty years, and their story deserves to me told.
While the movie gave viewers a behind the scenes look at celebrity life, the thing that made Straight Outta Compton stand out from similar films about rock bands or country musicians is that it also gave us a glimpse into the ghetto life that the three main characters grew up in. These scenes were mostly focused in the first half an hour or so of the film, but were very poignant. One in particular where a bus is pulled over by a car full of gang members really stuck out to me. Like Boyz in the Hood, which Ice Cube starred in (and which was mentioned in the film a few times), Straight Outta Compton showed us a world we normally wouldn’t see, but also let us understand that just because their background was different doesn’t mean these men are all that different from anyone else.
There was an opportunity here for the filmmakers to oversaturate their story with aspects of the current social justice narrative, which I feel would be justified, but at the same time would detract from the power of the story. Several bad run ins with the police did the job of making audiences connect the characters to modern day individuals targeted by the police for the color of their skin, while working as plot devices to show the reality these artists grew up in and had to deal with even after getting signed and becoming famous. This type of precision balancing is something that the filmmakers seem quite good at. The tone and emotions of the film were all over the spectrum, from hilarious to heartbreaking, but were juxtaposed and positioned in just the right way.
To anyone with an open mind and an interest in music and culture, I highly recommend going to see Straight Outta Compton. It’s definitely an intense ride, but the acting is incredible and the story is well crafted. At this point, I would have to say that it is one of my favorite movies of the year, and I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if one of the actors received an Oscar nomination next year.