The impact that the rap group N.W.A. — or, more specifically, its two most famous members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — has had on American pop culture is undeniable. Ice Cube is a multi-hyphenate phenomenon, acclaimed for both writing and rapping music and for writing, directing, producing, and acting in both movies and television. Dr. Dre, meanwhile, has shepherded some of the most famous names in hip hop and overseen the multibillion-dollar Beats by Dre.
In other words, there’s plenty of evidence to justify a biopic on how the group and its members got their start. Straight Outta Compton documents how the five original members — Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) — went from just trying to survive on the streets of Compton, California, to huge stardom.
Their story is one that includes plenty of controversy, from lyrics that had them being labeled as “gangsta rap” to their not-uncommon treatment by the police, which led to one especially controversial song. As their fame grew, rifts started to appear, abetted by their manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who seemed to care more about the company he and Eazy-E started than the well-being of the group as a whole.
Like the best music films, there’s something kinetic about seeing musical greatness being created in the moment. When Eazy-E first nails the rhythms of “Boyz-n-the-Hood” or Ice Cube spits out the lyrics to “F*** tha Police” shortly after being harassed by some cops, it’s easy to feel the intensity of the moment. All of that comes to head in a concert in Detroit during N.W.A.’s one and only tour as a full group, where you can practically see the electricity crackling.
The symmetry of the police harassment that N.W.A. experienced and the current Black Lives Matter movement is difficult to ignore. That the film is being released at this particular moment in time is both serendipitous and depressing, because it illustrates how little has changed when it comes to the treatment of African-Americans by the authorities. Director F. Gary Gray does a solid job of driving home this point without overplaying it.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and Gray and writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff do their best to give every person and situation their due, perhaps to the film’s detriment. In an effort to show the broad impact the group and its members had, the film sometimes loses its focus. Although you can’t ignore ancillary characters like Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur, the film’s balloon is punctured a bit when it shifts attention to them.
The casting of the film is ultimately what makes it work as well as it does. Having Ice Cube’s son play him might seem like a no-brainer given how much they look alike, but his performance proves that it was more than mere stunt casting. Hawkins and Mitchell embody the attitude and talent that Dr. Dre and Eazy-E possessed, and they help to lend the film the swagger it needs.
Straight Outta Compton is too long by about 20 to 30 minutes, because the filmmakers tried to stuff every last big event into the film, but it still succeeds in showing the lasting influence N.W.A. had on the rap world and beyond. More important, it makes you care about the people involved, whether you’re a rap fan or not.