You know, it’s an odd thing to film a biographical movie with two of the primary characters still alive and kicking. Normally films like Straight Outta Compton are reserved for when all the principle members have passed on, thus allowing for a less awkward discussion of who they actually where. And while it is admirable of director F. Gary Gary to embark on such a task, it ultimately makes some of character dynamics awkward, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
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Set during the mid 1980’s Straight Outta Compton follows the rise and fall of arguably the most influence rap group in history, N.W.A. While they were known for bringing the incredibly gritty and raw style of rap to the forefront of music, it was their messages that pushed them into the spotlight. Focusing less on the glitz and glamor of the falling disco scene, N.W.A. honed their attention on the mistreatment of their communities. Straight Outta Compton stays incredibly loyal to this message, refusing to compromise its message for the sake of the audience’s comfortability with the subject. While this could be seen as a turn off for some people, it’s good to see a film refuse to backdown from the messages at hand.
However while the dread of gang life,police brutality, and the critical reception of N.W.A. loom over the film like a thick fog; it’s the stellar performances from the three principle cast members that push this story forward. Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) are brought to screen with a stunning amount of likeness to their real life counter parts. O’Shea’s Ice Cube stands out here as at first, second, and third glance I could have swore it was actually Ice Cube on screen at times. Sadly, the likeness of the characters for Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are the only truly impressive thing about them. Both actors, while visibly invested, just don’t bring the gravitates you’d expect from such iconic musicians. This, I can only presume, is due to both men still being alive during the release of this film.
Eazy-E on the other hand is a revelation. I was stunned at the level of emotion, power, and sheer energy Jason Mitchell was able to portray on screen. Eazy steals every single scene he is in, giving the movie much needed emotional weight and depth. This was a deeply complex man and Straight Outta Compton doesn’t backdown from portraying every flaw, crack, or issue with his character. Unlike Dre or Ice Cube, Eazy-E died int he 1990’s due to AIDs; which must free up some of the weight of portraying his character as nothing less then squeaky clean. Now don’t get me wrong, Ice Cube and Dre have their “bad boy” moments, but nothing that would defame their character or make us question their motivations. Eazy-E, along with the bands manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) act more as an emotional weight to this massive two and a half hour long story.
Speaking of the story it’s not as bad as you’d initially think. Yes, historically movies about rappers such as Notorious are usually stupendously bad, but Straight Outta Compton may surprise you. For the first half only…let me explain. The first half of the movie chronicles the rise and fall of N.W.A.; showing viewers what brought them together and eventually the plethora of betrayals that ripped them apart. This half of the story is fantastic, playing out both the gritty Los Angeles street life and the extreme excess that comes with fame. Backed up by the controversial and visceral on screen performances, of songs such as “F*ck the Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” the movie seems to show a ton of promise. One scene in particular, where the police arrest, beat, and chase off stage the gang for preforming their aptly named anthem against police brutality.
Yet, once the group actually breaks apart and goes their separate ways is when this film just drags on. See, the movie quickly becomes less about the cultural significance of N.W.A. and more three separate biographies about the three members after the dissipation of the group. This is the point where Straight Outta Compton bogs down the story, trying to tell three incredibly detailed life stories in about an hour. Parts of these stories do really nothing to advance the over arcing narrative besides “Look how awesome and famous I’ve become.” Honestly, did we really need to include parts about Ice Cube’s acting career or Dr. Dre meeting up with a young Snoop Dog? Sure it’s fun to see, but this doesn’t help push anything in the movie along. It’s like Straight Outta Compton becomes an entirely different movie in its second half. Which is sad given how amazing the first half was.
Overall Straight Outta Compton refuses to sugar coat any of the real issues that plagued black communities during the 1980s. Jason Mitchell delivers a possibly Oscar worthy performance as Eazy-E and the music is as enjoyable as ever. If you are willing to slog through the lesser second half of the film, you are in for a real treat. Straight Outta Compton delivers the shotgun blast of entertainment you were hoping for.
A recent graduate of Arcadia University, Collin MacGregor is a freelance video editor and writer. He covers video games, television, and film for The Nerd Stash. Collin currently is the head film/television reviewer for the site.