The critically acclaimed film, “Straight Outta Compton” is an unlikely blockbuster for its “R” rating and timely depiction of the mean streets of Compton, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Although taking place in the mid-eighties, the clashes with the police resonate today. Chronicling the rise of N.W.A. (”niggaz wit attitude”), this biopic of music pioneers belongs in the company of “Ray”, “Walk the Line”, “8 Mile” and more recently , “Love and Mercy” (see July 12 review) and “Muscle Shoals”(July 19 review).
The seminal South L.A. hip-hop group N.W.A is the story of the creation of rap and hip-hop culture. Composing controversial lyrics, through word wizardry and brilliant poetic rhyming, N.W.A. music rages about the daily lives of young black men and the fears and violence they confront. Truthful, and not pretty, the music of N.W.A. was often censored, and considered dangerous and criminal.
For those of us in a certain demographic, this film requires patience in the first half hour of its 2 ½ hour running time. After the ferocious hook in the opening scene, “Straight Outta Compton” lingers mostly on the songs of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. While this soundtrack will enthrall the younger viewer, for the rest of us this movie only really takes off with the dramatic scenes of the censorship of rap, unspeakable police brutality, and racism. The assault on Rodney King (with iconic news footage) also is underscored as a context for the explosive rise in popularity of rap and its profound impact on the young musicians of N.W.A. “Straight Outta Compton” is a wild ride, and an historical one. But also a disconsolate reminder of where we are today.
O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Ice Cube’s son, plays his father without sentimentality. Corey Hawkins, as Dr. Dre, conveys with a glance how much he must adjust to the ugly side of fame. And Paul Giamatti dazzles as N.W.A’s manager (just as he did playing another music manager in “Love and Mercy”). Similar to other movies where the protagonists come from very hardscrabble backgrounds, “Straight Outta Compton” is a powerful set of portraits of young artists who, as a group, are both supportive and envious of each other’s talents and success. Yet these young striving musicians also want so much to be loyal to each other. “Straight Outta Compton” succeeds in disavowing the easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected on the talented and the young who become successful and rich too quickly.