AM At The Movies: ‘Straight Outta Compton’

Straight Outta Compton
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Directed By: F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Italian Job)
Run Time: 147 minutes

It’s hard to adequately capture the electricity of the moment when a genre is turned on its ear or a generational shift takes place, but F. Gary Gray and the team behind Straight Outta Compton came pretty damn close.

Because hip hop is mainstream and songs filled with curses and explicit content are de rigueur, it might be hard for some people to understand what all the fervor was about when N.W.A. arrived on the scene, but if you’re old enough to have experienced their arrival in real time, you remember that Eazy-E’s debut record “Boyz N The Hood” and the release of Straight Outta Compton were like atomic bombs landing on the music industry.

This group – comprised of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren – changed not just the rap game, but also the music industry as a whole.

Biopics are never perfectly accurate, but very few moments of this film feel inauthentic and while it does unfold like a greatest hits collection of key moments anyone familiar with the group’s history would already know, long-time fans are bound to be captivated seeing stories they’re familiar with play out on the screen and those just being introduced to this trailblazing group that produce one of the most influential people in music history (Dr. Dre) and a multi-platinum artist who has since crossed over to make Hollywood hits (Ice Cube) will be spellbound by how far they’ve come from the angry and irritated early days of their careers.

Watching the group record their debut album and hearing those familiar beats – the Charles Wright sample for “Express Yourself,” the building rush of the album’s titular track, the surging power of “F$@* Tha Police” – takes you back to ’88 when things jumped off and conveys the excitement and energy that comes when artists create a masterpiece. And make no mistake about it – that album is a masterpiece.

There are two scenes that really stand out – the first being a dialogue-free cruise through the streets in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent riots that ensued, which showed the physical manifestation of the things this transformative collection was rapping about at the time. But perhaps the most powerful sequence in the movie is one that is teased in the trailer, when the group takes a break from recording and gets approached by the LAPD for being black and on the sidewalk in a place where being black and on the sidewalk is reason enough to get accosted by the police.

The members of the group take the humiliation and profiling with seething acceptance as their manager, Jerry Heller, reacts with indignation and sheer disbelief, completely appalled that multiple law enforcement officers find it necessary to detain and search a collection of young black men because they were standing outside a building eating burgers. As the scene builds and comes to its tense conclusion, you know what track is going to be recorded next and you can’t wait for the beat to drop.

While the film flags at times and biopics can always be a little hazy because of pieces of the story that get left out, artistic license and the sheer difficulty of trying to wedge two decades into two-hours-and-change on the screen, the music carries the film along at a good clip overall and there are a couple performances that really stand out here.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. does an excellent job portraying his father, Ice Cube. Obviously having grown up around the man, he was bound to inherit some of his mannerisms and movements, but you have to give the first-time actor create for not just delivering a pantomime of his Pops. He gave life to the performance, showing signs that greater success – and more varied, diverse roles than his dad has enjoyed – could be in his future.

He also gets the line of the movie, which I won’t spoil other than to say the writers and director make a point to making it clear that Ice Cube wrote Friday and it involves one of that film’s signature lines.

Paul Giamatti does his usual stellar job as Jerry Heller, the manager who may or may not have bilked the group out of money over the years, but who gets casts as the “bad guy that made this all collapse” here. It’s a tough position to be put in as an actor, but the consummate pro Giamatti handles it well. And though the portrayal of Eazy-E (real name Eric Wright) quickly shifts from him being a cocksure drug dealer that won’t back down from anyone to a charismatic, amiable frontman with an affinity for promiscuity, there is something about Jason Mitchell – the actor playing the deceased gangster rap legend – that keeps you locked in.

There are moments where the film strays into stories and arcs that perhaps don’t need as much time as they receive, like Dr. Dre’s partnership and eventual parting of ways with Marion “Suge” Knight and Death Row Records or Jimmy Iovine telling him he’s special (everyone knows how special Dre is going in), there are also little snippets that will make any true hip hop fan smile in appreciation like Dre working out the hypnotic opening of “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” or playing the beat to “California Love” for Tupac for the first time.

Overall, Straight Outta Compton feels like one of those films that is going to be beloved by those that are close to the content – those that grew up with N.W.A. and the shift in hip hop that they wrought – and respected by those who see it as just another biopic because even if you don’t know or embrace the source material, there is no denying this is a quality flick deserving of all the praise it’s receiving.

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