In the late eighties, gangster rap group N.W.A became pioneers of the hip-hop genre, taking it from the underground to the mainstream with their controversial attitudes and explicit lyrics. With founding members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube producing, their incredible do-rags to riches story receives the cinematic treatment from director F. Gary Gray. The biopic borrows its name from their debut album and stretches from the origins of the clan in Compton, California through the highs and lows of the fame and fortune that followed. O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell portray Ice Cube, Dre and Eazy-E respectively in an insightful exploration of not only the music movement they forged but their battles with police authority, racial prejudice and each other.
An expectedly enjoyable soundtrack offers a backdrop to an engaging and insightful plot, and for viewers who are not necessarily taken by rap music, there is more than enough genuinely good storytelling to keep you entertained. There are nods and references for the fans, and though they’re not entirely subtle and can appear somewhat heavy-handed, I like that they are there. In the final third, the lengthy running time becomes apparent and a more ruthless edit could’ve been beneficial to the pacing. With Dre and Ice Cube producing hands-on, there is a biasness to their glorification but minor narrative issues aside, it is an enthralling piece of work by director Gray.
The on-point script doesn’t shy away from the big issues behind N.W.A’s message as a group and the dialogue is helped by a quartet of core turns and a masterstroke in casting, particularly in Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr playing him on screen. It’s not just the physical likenesses that are great, the acting is too. Hawkins and Mitchell are equally impactful in their portrayals, and all three are given there moments to shine though it could be said that Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr are there to make up the numbers as the lesser known performers of the gang MC Ren and DJ Yella. Introduced about halfway through as music manager Jerry Heller is the critically acclaimed Paul Giamatti who threatens to steal the show, excelling in a complex role that it seems he was born to play.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ is bold, outspoken and shrouded in hype and controversy, just as it should be given the subject matter. At its centre are young talented friends who want to better themselves and make it against all odds, and that message is universal. Music biopics tend to be formulaic and despite following some genre conventions, the performances are superb and the soundtrack never misses a beat, making it a must-see for fans of N.W.A or hip hop in general, and an education in the amazing evolution of gangster rap culture for everyone else.