Given that two of the key members of revolutionary gangsta rap group N.W.A. are not only still alive but serving as producers on Straight Outta Compton, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the less flattering aspects of their rise to fame seem to have been airbrushed out of this otherwise entertaining biopic.
Directed by F. Gary Gray (closely connected to the group thanks to his working relationship with Ice Cube), the film begins in 1986, in Compton, an economically downtrodden neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where scowly-faced lyricist O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played by O’Shea Jackson Jnr, Ice Cube’s real life son) and skilled DJ Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) team up with cocky, street level drug runner Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) to form the hip hop group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude).
Their angry songs are inspired by their experience of life on the streets, particularly their horrific treatment at the hands of racist LAPD officers.
The local success of their single ‘Boyz N The Hood’ attracts the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who makes good on his promise to bring the group to mainstream respectability, but causes ructions when it comes to the issue of paying everyone what they’re owed. Thereafter, the group split, with Ice Cube embarking on his own career, while Dre teams up with vicious former bodyguard Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) to form his own label, Death Row Records.
The first half of the film (which runs at an arse-challenging two and a half hours in total) is extremely entertaining, capturing both the energy and the anger of the group, most notably in a concert performance of ‘F–k Tha Police’ (after being warned by the police not to play it), which results in a near-riot and the group getting arrested.
Similarly, both the performances and the soundtrack are superb, and careful attention has been taken to ensure that the film works for rap aficionados (who’ll have a great time spotting all the cameos and references) and novices alike, though novices may wish to head to the internet afterwards for an unexpurgated version of the story.
The film is at its strongest when it draws unavoidable parallels with present-day events as exemplified by Ferguson, while also having something important to say about artistic expression and freedom of speech. On top of that, there are some priceless highlights; the sequence with Dre and Eazy listening to Cube’s “diss track” is brilliantly handled and very funny.
However, once Ice Cube leaves the group, the film begins to feel increasingly like skim-reading a Wikipedia page, with key events (such as Ice Cube’s connection with the Nation of Islam) referred to, but frustratingly under-explored, while other important figures such as Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) or Tupac are reduced to box-checking cameos (although as cameos go, Snoop’s is pretty good). Also, the film spends a bafflingly large amount of time talking about contract negotiations, which feels like time that could have been more usefully spent elsewhere.
In addition, although you could charitably argue that the film’s abysmal treatment of women is an accurate representation of rap culture in general, that doesn’t excuse certain moments, such as the group locking a naked woman in a hotel corridor – a scene that is played for laughs.
This is an engaging, well acted biopic with a terrific soundtrack and some powerful scenes, but the second half of the film tries to cover too much ground and spreads itself frustratingly thin in the attempt.