STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge. Directed by F. Gary Gray. 147 minutes. MA15+ (Strong coarse language).
A warts and all biopic charting the rise and fall of rap supergroup N.W.A., this is a well-acted, well-staged and powerfully emotional film. Though it risks offending viewers with the language and lifestyles depicted, anyone comfortable with their music ought to be okay viewing the narrative of its conception.
The key members of N.W.A. are all introduced in the opening scenes, set in 1986 Compton. Eazy-E is caught up in a drug deal turned drug bust, escaping across rooftops in a pulse-pounding set piece. Dr Dre is a budding DJ and producer, who elects to leave his mother’s house to try and make it on his own. Ice Cube’s school bus is held up by gangsters, who pull cocked weapons on several students. Cube is then assaulted outside his parents’ home by several policemen, despite doing nothing wrong. The theme of racial tensions between African-Americans and police, particularly the LAPD, forms a key conflict in the film – indeed, once N.W.A. are brought together in a record deal under Eazy-E’s label Ruthless Records, their seminal track was titled ‘F*** tha Police’.
Tellingly, when ‘Straight Outta Compton’ began playing in American theatres last month, it touched a nerve. Very real concerns about riots were entertained by politicians, incited by the similarities between the racial issues within law enforcement depicted in 1990’s America, and the ongoing cases of racially motivated police violence today. Distributor Universal Pictures publicly offered to pay for extra security at cinemas exhibiting the film, and though no incidents were provoked, the film’s popularity speaks to how rousingly it addresses these topical issues.
Of course, the group’s rise to fame is not an entirely smooth one. Their manager Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti in a similar turn to his work in the Beach Boys biopic ‘Love & Mercy’, only splits their earnings with Eazy-E, while the other members receive slim compensation under dubious contracts. Subsequent internal disputes, which ultimately tore the group apart, turn violent and extremely personal. Grappling with ‘too much ego, too much excess’, their personal lives are intertwined with guns and drugs and gang affiliations. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoots their world through a haze of smoke, emphasising realism with an immersive hand-held style (though cutting into some traditional ‘concert film’ footage for their electric live sets.
The young cast are terrific – their physical likenesses to their counterparts are just the foundation for their performances, with all displaying the requisite charisma and screen presence to match their larger than life inspirations. Eazy-E, whose story plays out like the group’s Greek tragedy, is played very emotively by Jason Mitchell. His fallout with his friends, combined with his financial and health problems, create significant substance for the thesp, and he layers his character deeply. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. depicts his own father Ice Cube in the film, and they share a bearing which imbues his lyrical wordsmith with a gravity extending beyond his words. Of the leads, however, it is Corey Hawkins’ Dr Dre who steals the film. His journey is beset by distractions at every turn, yet the actor’s steely drive conveyed how he powered on, and this makes his scattered moments of humour more graceful. Even Giamatti’s Jerry, who could have been a villainous caricature in another actor’s hands, is given pathos in several scenes, particularly when standing up for the group against a number of policemen.
It could certainly field complaints for being overlong, however writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff transcend the clichés of many biopic to deliver an intimacy that forgoes the usual gloss. Furthermore, accusations of misogyny levelled at the film have some basis for this reviewer. The few female characters are largely mistreated by the group, and while this may accurately reflect reality, it’s a shame that their characters never get a chance to deliver their side of the tale.
It delivers on several levels, as both a slice of history and a damning reflection of contemporary America. Fans of the group – though perhaps unlikely to be reading this publication – will find the film insightful and engaging. Newcomers – like this reviewer for the most part – will be entertained and astonished by the (largely) true story depicted.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 27.