Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton
R | 147 min
Director: F. Gary Gray
by Jason Koenigsberg
N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitudes) was one of the most influential rap groups of all time. The new movie Straight Outta Compton does them justice as it chronicles their rise to fame and eventual break up. Most notable, the film documents their cultural importance and illustrates their impact on American music.
The opening shot was reminiscent of their 1988 album cover (also called ‘Straight Outta Compton’) with Eric Wright aka Eazy E opening up the trunk of a car and looking down. Even before this I knew this movie was going to go exactly where I wanted it to go during the Universal logo. Instead of playing music or an NWA song like one might expect over the logo, the audience hears police, news reporters and President Reagan talking about the racial unrest and violence in urban America. This was a very shrewd decision by director F. Gary Gray because hearing Reagan’s voice makes you think of what the United States was like under his presidency and how some parts of America Reagan did not want to acknowledge.
It is important to mention F. Gary Gray because there was nobody better suited to direct this picture other than him. He started out directing music videos and then went on to helm big budget studio pictures like Friday (1995) and The Negotiator (1998). Anyone could have directed a picture about a music group’s rise to fame and their fall, but Straight Outta Compton succeeds because it captures what NWA’s music stood for and why they were so culturally important. Also, I mentioned those two films in particular because F. Gary Gray has shown he can excel in directing a comedy and an action genre picture, this movie is neither but it has elements of both. Some moments in Straight Outta Compton are genuinely funny and others are thrilling, but the whole time it never loses focus on demonstrating how this rap group changed music, challenged the first amendment and why they deserve their own biopic.
While watching this it is apparent that the NWA stood for speaking out against racial injustice. Their lyrics were provocative then and are just as important today. Sadly, this movie is relevant because there is still vast amounts of racial inequality and the news reports police brutality against African-Americans as much if not more than it did when the NWA was an active group and during the Rodney King incident and its subsequent L.A. riots. The fact this film has significant historical and current cultural impact makes it sad but all the more important and best of all, it is a great film so everybody wins.
It is sad that the NWA’s music is still relevant because of its frank dialogue about racial and social injustice, but it is also sad that their music could not be made today. It is too risqué for any big music producer to sign an artist with that type of raw energy and controversial subject matter. Nobody would be willing to touch on issues that volatile and because of that nobody in 2015 can be the NWA of their generation.
The performances across the board are exceptional. O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell as Eazy E all look and act eerily like the famous rappers they are portraying (it helps that O’Shea Jackson Jr. is Ice Cube’s son in real life). It is hard to imagine any other actors in their roles. Also Paul Giamatti turns in another great supporting performance as their manager. His part requires him to be nurturing and sympathetic while simultaneously be smarmy and deceitful. A very difficult task yet the whole time Paul Giamatti appears likeable and more importantly believable.
The only major flaw of Straight Outta Compton comes in the third act. As Eric “Eazy-E” Wright is dying of AIDS the films slows down a lot and some scenes really drag. It is a minor flaw in the grand scheme of things but the only noticeable shortcoming of an otherwise powerful and exhilarating drama.
Overall Straight Outta Compton is a brilliant big screen biopic that succeeds triumphantly in capturing the essence of what NWA’s rap music stood for. Even more socially important is the fact that their music and this movie are just as culturally important today as it was nearly thirty years ago.