Movie review: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ a fascinating look at history
– Biopics have to walk a tightrope. They’re telling the story of real people, so the end point and the major points in the story are part of history. But they also have to capture context and depth.
The best biopics present an unvarnished picture of their subjects — a warts and all approach to telling the story. The people aren’t saints, but there is something compelling about their story that needs to be told. Most people are familiar with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre at this point. Maybe they know them from movies or the world’s nicest headphones. But before all that — in the late 1980s in Compton, Calif., the pair were aspiring emcees that had a unique perspective on the world. Everyone probably remembers the controversy around NWA and some of their songs, but “Straight Outta Compton” is about their friendship, their personal story and what inspired those inflammatory lyrics.
From that standpoint, the film is a success, and one of the more dynamic films of summer.
In the late 1980s in Compton, O’Shea Jackson (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Andre Young (Corey Hawkins) and Eric Wright (Jason Mitchell) were just trying to make it. There were gangs all about, no great jobs to be had, and cops there to hassle anyone of color. But these three — who would later go by the stage names Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy-E, respectively, had a voice, talent and a passion for sharing their view of the world.
The trio wrote, performed, produced and distributed their own single, and found it resonated with those in their neighborhood and all over the country. When they teamed with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), they were able to get a contract and get their music to mass audiences.
Soon enough disputes and arguments over money led them to go their separate ways, but Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy-E remained friends and remained committed to sharing their art and their experience with the world.
“Straight Outta Compton” isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t for everyone. Rap music, when done well, can be a lyrical way of sharing ones experience with the world. It can be like poetry set to the backdrop of a killer beat, but not everyone appreciates that.
The contribution that NWA, and in particular that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have made to the genre is undeniable. But for those that simply can’t get past the adult content, thumping bass or attitude in the music, “Straight Outta Compton” will be a rough watch. In addition, as part of the, “warts and all” approach to telling the story, there are a number of party sequences that feature plenty of rough, adult content.
I didn’t go to the movie hoping to see lavish parties or because I needed to spend 147 minutes listening to these songs. I went because there is a part of the story that I find fascinating and poignant even today. Even if you don’t resonate with the music, it’s hard not to appreciate that many of the songs come from a place of honesty — of hurt and struggle — that is representative of not just their experience in Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but is true of many neighborhoods today.
When you think about the continued struggle between men of color and the police that persists, this is a story that becomes more fascinating. Some of N.W.A.’s lyrics might have been offensive, but so was the treatment and experience that inspired the rhymes. That’s an important part of the story that often gets left out.
In terms of filmmaking, I appreciated the performances of Jackson, Jr. — Ice Cube’s real-life son — Hawkins and Mitchell. They brought these people to life, gave the story depth and provided some emotional heft. Giamatti is good in his role, too. There’s been some controversy — mostly created by Heller — about the portrayal in the film, but it’s a fascinating piece of history. I was impressed that the film — which is produced by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — doesn’t portray any of them as saints, just real people with passion and a unique perspective trying to make it in the world.
There is a reason this film soared at the Box Office last weekend. You might not appreciate their art, but it’s hard not to appreciate their story and their struggle. “Straight Outta Compton” has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use. Enter with caution.
Three stars out of four.