Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
It is often the case that when musical biopics are made they will seek to depict the lives and works of their subjects without attempting any deeper insight into their psyches or using their stories to depict a greater, overarching narrative. What results is effectively a ‘greatest hits’ story that, while often pleasant and even entertaining, does not leave much of a resounding impact on the viewer, nor does it challenge or inspire them in any profound way. I think this is why I enjoyed watching Straight Outta Compton so much; because it isn’t merely a story about five famous musicians who started a famous band with some famous songs, it is an exposé about a band of rebels who found a unique and belligerent voice and overcame the odds and adversities that they faced to deliver a radical message about challenging authority and being true to one’s self and one’s roots. Whether or not you’re a fan of rap music isn’t the point. This isn’t a film about Dr. Dre or Ice Cube or even about N.W.A, this film is about the statement that they made together, the antagonistic forces that stood in their way, and why that statement matters.
Straight Outta Compton depicts the lives of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the five Compton boys who together created the band N.W.A., one of the most significant and revolutionary groups in hip-hop and rap history. Growing up in a dangerous neighbourhood in which poverty, drugs, gang violence and police discrimination are ever present, these young men find themselves in a state of disgruntlement and frustration and seek to vent and express their anger and aggravation through music. Following their successful debut the group catches the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a big time music manager who undertakes to take them to the top. The band wins much popularity and notoriety for their hardcore beats, aggressive lyrics and provocative subjects as they seek to deliver a confrontational message and kick off a social revolution that will reverberate throughout the country and forever change the face of rap music.
One thing this film gets absolutely spot on is its main characters. The five members of N.W.A. are perfectly cast and share a dynamic chemistry that is both substantial and believable. Given that I wasn’t very familiar with this group or its music prior to watching this film I cannot account for its authenticity. However I do think that what the film presented worked very well in its own context and I found these characters to be fully relatable and interesting. At the centre of it all is Dre, the aspiring musician who shows a strong talent for the craft and a keen aptitude for the business and who remains the level-headed voice of reason in the erupting feud that threatens to break up the band. Eazy-E is the cocky, charismatic hustler who, upon discovering almost by accident what a gift he has for rapping, embarks on a wild journey that sadly ends in tragedy. Ice Cube (played by his staggeringly identical-looking son) is the hard-as-nails rapper with a strong presence and a fiery temper to match the band’s scorching songs. The downside is that these three characters stand firmly in the film’s spotlight while DJ Yella and MC Ren are unceremoniously brushed to the side. As much as I enjoyed watching the exploits of the three main characters, it would’ve been nice if the other two had been given more prominent roles and were allowed to leave a more lasting impact.
To me what really set this film apart is the way it addresses the social issues that the members of N.W.A. faced and how they set to combat those issues by speaking out through their music. Early on the film presents the audience with examples of the hardships these young men and many others like them have had to endure their entire lives; violence in their neighbourhoods, low-income jobs, hostility from the police and a hundred other obstacles that threaten to suppress and engulf them. These five are frustrated, enraged and pissed off and they have decided not to take it any more. Through their music they are able to express their hardships through brutally honest lyrics about violence and aggression that reflect the harsh world they have to live in. Songs like Express Yourself and Fuck the Police are loud, explicit and confrontational because that is what it takes for their voices to be heard. There is something intensely raw and authentic about this film’s mood that makes it an astonishing viewing experience.
Although this film is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, it doesn’t feel like a vanity project. While the film may not necessarily be the complete and utter truth and parts of the story were likely tweaked to deliver a more positive spin on the main characters, I still feel like the film’s spirit is nevertheless true to the message it is trying to deliver. While the film does make a deliberate attempt to portray the members of N.W.A. in as positive (possibly even heroic) a light as it can, the light is nevertheless imperfect. These men understand that they are not saints and make no claims to be such. They only claim to be telling the truth, nothing more and nothing less. Their flaws and vices are important parts of who they are and reflect where it is where they are from and what sort of lives they have had. They are not trying to tell anyone what they should think or how they should live their lives; they are simply five men from Compton who have a statement to make and they are damn well going to say it whatever the consequences. The result is a provocative film with a powerful message that remains relevant today.