A film based on the rap group N.W.A. is a long time coming; especially considering the musician-biopic genre is low in representing African-American artists. The few out there like Notorious and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ haven’t been that great, with only a few exceptions. Now seems like the perfect time for an N.W.A. film, given how the relevancy of their work still applies today. It’s been in development since 2009, but has finally been made with Straight Outta Compton, named after the album of the same name (one of the greatest of all time, so no pressure). It’s helmed by director, F. Gary Gray, and is written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff.
Spanning over a decade, Straight Outta Compton begins in 1986 where we meet the major players, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). We follow their journey into joining as a group, creating N.W.A. and the controversy that surrounded the release of their debut album fueled by growing racial tensions in the late 80s to early 90s.
There’s a lot resting on Straight Outta Compton to get things right. It’s very obvious that there’s a huge weight that the film carries with its themes and historical relevance. The good news is that for the first half of the film, it completely follows through. It’s one of the best films of the year, it’s incredible, visceral, and radical in every way N.W.A. was, contextualizing the group with its time period and showing why their story still matters to this day. Unfortunately, once the second half hits, it becomes a straight-forward biopic that reduces the story to a tedious “this happens, then this happens, then this happens” method of storytelling that tends to plague many historical films. The second half isn’t “bad” by any stretch, it’s OK, it has some moments of true greatness within it, however while the first half felt like it was about something, the second half feels like a lesson in music contracts that just happens to feature the N.W.A. and a bunch of cameos. In any other movie, this would be a brief mention regarding the broken structure of the second half, but considering how phenomenal the film started off it only comes off as disappointing.
I don’t want to get too negative because for the most part, Straight Outta Compton does so much right. F. Gary Gray had to drop out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier to do this film and his passion for the material is very evident. He captures the atmosphere, the culture and tensions of living in Compton at the time. It’s brutal, raw and at times, painfully honest, but it’s captured with thoughtfulness, beauty and poignancy, with a large part of that being cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, doing brilliant work as usual. It’s during the first half where you really get a sense of what is was like during that time, and how the particular circumstances surrounding the characters led them to create the group. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” is spoken by Ice Cube during a press conference and it is the driving force of the themes behind the first half of the film especially after their debut album hits big time.
The other thing that the film does well with is the cast, it’s mindboggling enough that they managed to find actors who not only look and sound like their real life counterparts, but that they are able to get past that to deliver stellar performances across the board. These are the kind of performances that lead to careers, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see these individuals in bigger movies later on. Everyone is on point without a single weak link. Jason Mitchell shines as he becomes the heat of the group and as the film goes along, he’s given some heavy material that he pulls off magnificently. Of course, the always reliable Paul Giamatti does great work as the shady manager, Jerry Heller, with a performance that feels so similar to his role in Love & Mercy that it was almost distracting, but I got over it pretty quick.
The best way I can describe the second half of the film is that it feels like they took the typical textual-epilogue that you find in almost every historical film and simply filmed it. So, all the stuff that is mostly inconsequential to the story being told or the themes being expressed which is usually left for that period before the credits roll so the audience can leave with some other interesting tidbits, is shot and extends the film’s running time to a draggy two-and-a-half hours (and the original cut was an hour longer). There are interesting elements, and it is fairly entertaining, mostly due to the performances, and genuine moments that work astonishingly well. I’ll admit I even laughed harder than I probably should have when Ice Cube chuckles at a line that he writes for the film, Friday (which was directed by F. Gary Gray, by the way). The problem is that there didn’t seem like much of a point to it, it quickly loses the energy built up from the previous half and it came to a point where the final scene felt like such an abrupt cut to the credits since it just felt like the end of another scene before we go to another character to see where they are. It’s not the worst, but it does drag down what could’ve been a masterwork to an above average musician biopic. Then there are also the possible criticisms of the sanitization of some of the things that have happened with the group members, one of them being the history of abuse that Dr. Dre had with multiple women in his life, an allegation that is never mentioned. Then again, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are producers, so it makes sense that the film presents their legacy the way they want to be remembered.
Straight Outta Compton is a mostly uneven film, with one half being the perfect and timely portrayal of race relations and exploration of police brutality confronted through art and expression and the other being a disjointed series of scenes that portray bullet points of the group’s contribution to hip-hop after they made it big. I only harp on it so much because the first half is so effective and immersive that even at being just OK the second half sinks the whole thing down a couple notches. Despite that, it’s still a worthwhile film that deserves attention, especially for the many moments where it hits a home run thanks its stellar direction, terrific performances and the pure, raw power and energy brought on by the music. So, at the very least, you’ll get the urge listen to something interesting on the car ride home.