Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti, Neil Brown
Plot: A group of young men from Compton chase their dreams of becoming rap stars, unprepared for media and political consequences of their new style of music.
Perhaps the biggest irony of the prejudice against rap music is that once upon a time rock n’ roll went through exactly the same thing. Every criticism thrown at hip hop was once aimed at Elvis Presley when he brought a brand new genre to the table. Watch The Boat That Rocked and you will see several comparisons between the general public’s attitude to Rock N Roll as they do with rap music in Straight Outta Compton, albeit disguised behind Richard Curtis’ loveable romp style. People just don’t like to discuss comparisons between a classic band like the Beatles and compare it to the politically controversial N.W.A. In truth, it is impossible to compare the two wildly different styles of music. However, for anyone with a slight interest in rap music will know that this is rap done right. Fuelled by personal issues and mainly their anger, the rap music that Eazy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre came out with is what rap should aim to be. Topical, powerful and honest.
It is in the middle act, where the movie discusses the rage that powers the music from N.W.A that Straight Outta Compton delivers. It opens as you would expect it to with three struggling musicians (the movie never really does anything with the other two members of the group, DJ Yella or MC Ren), trapped in Compton, trying to break out of the ghetto through their music, despite the usual pressures of giving in and getting a 9-5 job. Essentially if 8 Mile was an ensemble piece. This part of the movie is good, fleshing out the characters and making us get to know them for the movie ahead. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, in particular, shine, always made redeemable through their love for their music. However, the movie only really hits peak interest levels, when their complicated relationship with the police crops up. Forgive the fact that the cops are depicted as pantomime baddies in this film – this is the lens through which both us and the N.W.A are supposed to view them. They charge into every situation without understanding the context, assuming that any coloured person hanging around the street is loitering and the ones with any semblance of money must have earned it through selling narcotics. When the N.W.A’s career begins to take off and they still find themselves subject to random shake-downs from passing police officers, they strike back. There is a brilliant moment when Ice Cube, just after being hassled by two aggressive cops, has a light bulb moment in his eyes. He takes himself away and ten minutes later returns with one of the most influential rap lyrics in music history, Fuck Tha Police. Again, this is what rap music should be – an expression of emotions. This anger and resentment in Ice Cube’s lyrics is what makes him one of the most powerful figures in rap history – back in 1988, with this song, he risked it for a bit more than a chocolate biscuit. The movie then goes on to question whether N.W.A are freedom fighters, standing up for the black community, trampled on by ignorant officials, or whether they inspired a riot that spread like wildfire across the world. There is a sense that as the ball gets rolling, the police and the rap group end up in a power struggle, each one trying to outdo the other, to the point where each group is in the wrong, no matter how noble the cause was when it started.
This was the movie I wanted to watch, genuinely interested in the story behind this powerful rap movement and also keen to get this story out to a wider audience. It’s about time non-rap fans learned a little bit about the history of the music. However, Straight Outta Compton ends up becoming a straight biopic rather than a movie with a message. The second half of the N.W.A’s career was their falling out over suspiciously biased contracts. The group disbanded, each breaking off into their own labels, sometimes ending up in rap wars, publicity stunts turning into friendship-destroying songs. One of the highlights in the movies is the scene where Ice Cube responds to a traitor comment in his latest rap song, each lyric singling out the rest of the N.W.A and tearing into them. Eazy E is both insulted, yet unable to not nod his head to the beat of the music. Yes, Straight Outta Compton still delivers its fair share of great moments (the ending is particularly poignant), but it simply stops being the movie you want it to be. It charts the rise and fall of each rap star, so lost in the business of the rap industry that they lose touch of what their music was originally about. But there is no time to focus in on anything. There is lots of content to get through from Dr. Dre’s relationship with the bullish Suge Knight to Eazy E’s poor health. The women in the N.W.A’s life are barely referenced, making it even more out of place when they crop up. The bigger emotional moments never really land as well as the director intends them to, because the movie is forced to race through the build-up to them. As a result, F. Gary Gray needs to fall back on melodrama, which only really works in the final act. It is an important part of the story to know, but there is a part of you that wishes the movie focused on the police aggravation chapter solely. But I guess that will be to each individual viewer’s taste.
Final Verdict: For a brief moment Straight Outta Compton tells a politically interesting story, but it gets caught up in being a biopic, partially losing the intended message.