Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures, R)

Straight-Outta-Compton 75Any problems wash right away in short order, once you come to grips with how compelling the story is, how talented and charismatic the cast is, and, if you didn’t already know, how good N.W.A.’s music is.

 

 

 

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With the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder just passed and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me number one on the nonfiction bestseller list, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time to release F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The film chronicles the hugely influential rap group’s rapid rise circa the late 80s and early 90s, which is largely remembered both for introducing the world to the huge talents of people like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E and also for their incendiary lyrics which, depending on who you talk to, incite violence (their most recognizable track is “Fuck tha Police”), are wildly misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and whatever else (or some combination therein, or all of the above).

At first it doesn’t appear that Straight Outta Compton is going to be anything terribly special—while it’s necessary to show the world where the members of N.W.A. came from, the way Gray stages action scenes in the beginning of the film is awfully generic, some of the dialogue is too spot-on (“Speak a little truth, people lose their minds…”), and Joseph Trapanese’s score is too overbearing. But these problems wash right away in short order, once you come to grips with how compelling the story is, how talented and charismatic the cast is, and, if you didn’t already know, how good N.W.A.’s music is.

This first starts to come into focus as we see the group perform “Gangsta Gangsta” in front of a live crowd, and soon after we get a great scene where Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is enlisted to rap in the studio, more or less against his will. And from there the good scenes just keep lining up—the genesis of “Fuck tha Police,” the (near-) riot at a Detroit gig, their unexpected rise to huge fame, the eventual falling out (and resulting disses) among various members of the group. It helps immensely, too, that no one is depicted as all good or all bad; this film certainly does have heroes and villains, but at some point basically everyone both does something amazing and then later acts like a total asshole, which makes everyone in the film more human and relatable (well, the police officers in the film never do anything good, but perhaps that’s to be expected).

The three most recognizable members of N.W.A., Ice Cube (here played by Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E, are the three best and most memorable performances. Chief among them is Jackson, who, while playing his father is maybe an obvious choice for the role, is basically note-perfect. Cube is the most complicated character of the bunch, and Jackson well-embodies being smart, angry, funny, threatening, and immensely talented all at once, not to mention being a dead ringer for his dad. Beyond that—and not that it’s important in the context of the movie—there’s some interesting meta stuff to sort out when one realizes that Gray directed the real Ice Cube in Friday (which is briefly referenced in a late scene in the film), one of his breakout roles (also, Cube is a very good actor himself, so maybe it’s no surprise that his son is as well). Also, there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it scene where the character Ice Cube in the film says he has a baby on the way, and you realize that he’s talking about the very baby who is in reality speaking that line.

The film’s very long running time (147 minutes) might result in some would-be audience members approaching this with trepidation, but the movie never drags, and by the end you’ll be wishing it were longer, not shorter. | Pete Timmermann

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