Straight Outta Compton: Epic Biopic is N.W.A.'s Origin Story (Review)

Photo: Universal Pictures

Photo: Universal Pictures

"Straight Outta Compton" succeeds at telling the origin story of the legendary hip-hop group N.W.A. with strong performances by the actors portraying the original members: Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Jason Mitchell in an amazing debut as Easy-E, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella.

The film opens loud and fast with an action sequence starring the film's other cast member, the LAPD. Much like the N.W.A. album of the same name, "Straight Outta Compton" makes no apologies when it comes to reporting what happens on inner city streets with brutal honesty. From gang violence to police brutality and the harassment of black men, there are moments in this film when the 1980s Compton scenes look eerily like last night's news broadcast in Any Town, U.S.A. 

There are so many complexities to the N.W.A. story that this film could have taken on too many story lines. Instead the heart of the story tends to focus on the brotherhood of the group and their survival on the streets as well as in the entertainment industry. From their humble beginnings as teenagers in rough neighborhoods, to their rise to fame and eventual separation over money - the brotherhood endured. Emotionally the story easily transitions from ruthless to heartwarming thanks to extremely impressive acting and honest writing. There are warm, tenderhearted scenes in the film where we see Jason Mitchell (Easy-E) as both a shrewd businessman and a young naive man looking to be welcomed back home into the arms of his friends. There are somewhat cringe-worthy scenes, reminding us that these gentlemen were not saints. For the most part the N.W.A. members' larger legal problems were omitted from the story. Even when we start to discover that Jerry Heller, the band's manager well played by Paul Giamatti and a wild wig, might be up to no good - the storytelling doesn't twist your arm into believing Jerry is a bad guy. However, things do get ugly when Suge Knight enters the picture. R. Marcos Taylor is menacing as hip-hop's most evil villain.

It is impossible to not fall in love with O'Shea Jackson Jr. in every scene he is in. As the 19-year old version of his father, O'Shea nails his role. There was a moment when I actually believed that might really be Ice Cube on stage circa 1988. From the laugh to the sometimes intimidating presence, he really dug deep and did his homework to not mimic his father, but to actually embody him. "Friday" fans will love the scenes that pay homage to the movie Ice Cube wrote. There is one hilarious line in the film only "Friday" fans will truly relish in which O'Shea Jr. sounds exactly like O'Shea Sr saying bye to a certain female. You can't help but laugh while respecting how much presence O'Shea Jr. has of his own. As the writer and first band member to break apart from the group, Ice Cube's own story could fill 2 more hours. That's a movie I'd like to see.

And then there's the music. Gangsta rap, or "reality rap" as the guys called it, was to hip-hop what punk rock was to rock n roll. The next level of full blown anti-establishment, in-your-face, raw, honest fight songs. The live performance scenes are loud and bumping. I sang along to every song, as did my daughter, remembering the soundtrack of my own youth. We were visited by the ghost of Tupac Shakur in the later part of the film that chronicles Dr. Dre's time as a producer at Death Row Records. Hawkins does a great job at playing Dr. Dre the way Dr. Dre plays Dr. Dre - cool, strong and confident. Those moments in the film where you think you are actually watching Easy-E lay down his first ever track, or listening to Snoop Dog free style "Gin and Juice" at Dre's house are golden. 

Aside from being a history lesson in music, freedom of speech and Tipper Gore, "Straight Outta Compton" is a story about the American Dream, realized by talented young black dreamers, show men and entrepreneurs. Saying what too many of us were afraid to say, N.W.A. were heroes to teenagers like me and even now my own teenager, but villains to the PMRC and the authorities. I remember listening to that album for the first time thinking, "Wow - they are really SAYING this!" so to be able to watch the story on the big screen was like ripping open that plastic wrap and pressing play for the first time all over again. Scenes with LA on fire after Rodney King riots look all too familiar, my daughter pointed out. "This movie made me realize that while hip-hop has changed, not much else has", she said. 

With every actor delivering a flawless performance the film was impressive. When it concluded and the credits (classic footage of the group) rolled, I was sad it was over. The loss of Easy-E meant the true death of N.W.A. on film and in real life. Too soon perhaps, because it seems like there were so many more stories to tell, so many more "reality raps" to write.

Well done, F. Gary Gray. Well done.