The 400-Word Review: Straight Outta Compton
By Sean Collier
August 17, 2015
Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray’s fine biography of the pioneering rap group N.W.A., is such a massive and sweeping project — covering nearly a decade of music history and 147 minutes worth of celluloid — that it must be regarded from several angles.
Plainly: as a movie, it’s quite good. An industry fable and drama of clashing personalities, Straight Outta Compton avoids the pitfalls that frequently claim music biopics. Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff are not interested in recounting, point-by-point, the life stories of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s son) and Eazy E (Jason Mitchell); instead, they’re determined to make a movie that will be appreciated and admired by general audiences, and they succeed.
As a biography, though, there are problems. While the import and impact of N.W.A. is convincing, it is clear that Cube and Dre are among the film’s producers. Straight Outta Compton is critical, if not damning, of Eazy E (though the rapper’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, is among the list of producers as well), and fellow N.W.A. members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) are presented as secondary characters. Longtime Dre adversary Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) is unflinchingly villainous, and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) — with whom both Cube and Dre clashed before departing N.W.A. — is the film’s chief foil.
Are these biases disruptive? Not particularly; if anything, they’re in service of the narrative, which is compelling and sometimes moving. But with one member of N.W.A. deceased and two credited only as “N.W.A. Consultants,” it shouldn’t be assumed that Straight Outta Compton is the whole truth.
It doesn’t matter much while watching the film, though, a truly captivating experience as powerful as the Dre-created beats that ignite the group in the first act. Straight Outta Compton feels not just like biography but also like commentary — and it is on that third level that the timing of this release could not be more appropriate. When N.W.A. became national news, songs like “Fuck Tha Police” were heard by many as threats; now, they fit into a long history of protest that once again dominates the national dialogue. Straight Outta Compton is not a work of activism, but releasing it in August of 2015 certainly feels like one.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark