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Review: “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of N.W.A. as an American epic

It would have been possible to make a great small film about the genesis of N.W.A.: an intimate portrait of five kids who grew up in Compton and found their voices on the stage and in the studio. These guys, though, don’t do anything small. Straight Outta Compton unfolds over 147 minutes as an American epic—telling the story of not just N.W.A., but of the ascendance of West Coast rap from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

It’s an authorized biopic, with participation from all four of the group’s surviving core members as well as the family of the late Eazy-E. That doubtless necessitated some compromises and edge-smoothing—in the end, all five come out looking pretty good, each portrayed as having done what he thought was right during an exciting, confusing time—but it certainly doesn’t mean that the film is flat or boring. On the contrary, director F. Gary Gray keeps the movie crackling with life and burning with the righteous indignation that was sparked in the streets of Los Angeles 30 years ago.

The movie opens with a drug bust, Eazy-E escaping by rooftop as law enforcement agents smash in the door of a drug house with a tank. Gray—with writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff—portrays Compton circa 1986 as a war zone, with collateral damage on all sides. While Eazy (Jason Mitchell) makes his way in the dope trade, future groupmates Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.—Cube’s IRL son), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) are working to build a hip-hop career from occasional DJ gigs at nightclubs where the owners would frankly prefer that the entertainment keep the customers focused on their drinks instead of social justice.

The first half of the film unfolds as a somewhat conventional origin-story music biopic, from Eazy’s halting start as an MC to the group’s infamous North American tour in support of their incendiary 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton. The familiar rags-to-riches narrative, though, is rooted to a strongly evoked sense of place and time that unambiguously makes a case for the importance of the group’s brash message.

The film’s single most crucial scene is rendered with power and immediacy: outside a recording studio, we watch the group members harassed by cops simply because they “look like gang members.” Only after being thrown to the ground and humiliated are the artists allowed to return to the studio, where Ice Cube works up a new lyric for one of Dre’s most powerful beats: the audience I saw the film with erupted into cheers when Cube, seen in stark profile, ripped into “F— tha Police.”

Cube is portrayed as the most reflective group member, and his departure—he’s shown to justifiably distrust the group’s manager Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti—marks the film’s transition into its long second half, in which the group gradually fragments. Ice Cube goes on to a successful solo career and film work; Dr. Dre continues to work as a producer and MC, joining forces with Snoop Dogg for the seminal album The Chronic; and Eazy-E sticks with Heller, gradually receding from the public eye and eventually becoming ill with complications from AIDS just as an N.W.A. reunion looks to be imminent.

As the film goes through its increasingly grandiose paces—becoming almost a Boogie Nights of West Coast hip-hop—Gray, who also directed Ice Cube’s breakout film Friday, keeps us grounded by focusing closely on the personal relationships among the group members. Questions of trust, ego, and art interweave as each group member tries to find the best uses for his gifts—and tries to reconcile the group’s increasing wealth and fame with the destructive impulses to violence that might have been adaptive back in the day but are at best distracting and at worst deadly dangerous as the stakes get higher.

Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), who co-founded Death Row Records with Dr. Dre and other artists in 1991, appears as an increasingly malevolent presence; in a bizarre and tragic instance of life imitating art imitating life, the actual Suge Knight was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident after leaving the Straight Outta Compton film set this past January, and is currently jailed on a murder charge in association with the incident.

Strong performances all around help to keep Straight Outta Compton engaging, and the film is often wildly entertaining: the dialogue is consistently sharp, and Gray shows a strong hand with set pieces like a show that ends in turmoil; backstage shenanigans (including one scene that pays off with a famous Friday catchphrase); and playbacks of the dis tracks that Ice Cube trades with his erstwhile groupmates after going his own way.

There’s a lot more to the N.W.A. story than you’ll see on screen in Straight Outta Compton (“The film skips uncomfortable chapters of the group’s rise […] in favor of the ones that make its members look like achieving underdogs,” notes Jon Caramanica in the New York Times, and Jim DeRogatis observes that the group’s notorious misogyny is largely omitted), but there’s also a lot that did make it into the film—both style and substance. The film gives a mainstream audience a way to understand the story of gangsta rap that’s neither alarmist nor dismissive—a story that strongly draws the connection between N.W.A.’s music and today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Clearly, the members of N.W.A. feel that this story needs to be told, and that now is the time; the experience of making the movie has proved so powerful that it’s shaken Dr. Dre into releasing his first solo album in 16 years, the turbulent and impassioned Compton. This new movie makes the case that the story of N.W.A. is an essential American story, and that their music – “this reality rap stuff,” as one skeptical character calls it – was profoundly influential in the evolution of hip-hop into the dynamic, vital force it is today.

While, for many viewers, Straight Outta Compton will be only the beginning of an understanding and appreciation of this storied and controversial collective—one of the most significant groups of their time, in any genre—it’s an essential introduction, and one of the most important movies of the year.