F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton” quite literally opens with a bang and it only gets more explosive as the story continues. The film follows the polarizing hip-hop group N.WA’s almost unimaginable rise to success as well as their many setbacks.As the film opens, Gray is unapologetic about dropping his audience into Compton in the late 1980’s, which honestly is not somewhere anyone wants to be. This is not at all the color-saturated, upbeat world from his debut film “Friday” (1995). The drug epidemic, along with Reagan’s war on drugs, completely decimated the community, enabling very few to become successful. Honestly, the bleary muted tones along with the grit and grime of “Compton” makes John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” look almost warm and inviting. Yet despite the many odds against them, the men of N.W.A were able to thrive, with Ice Cube as the group’s lyricist, Dr. Dre on the beats, and Easy-E backing the group financially, as their records began rising to the top.
With biopics, I’ve always found that there are two different types of films: Films that are made just because the subject is of interest to the general public; and those that are made when the subjects of said film – or their families, or some source close to them – back the project. Unlike Lifetime’s “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” debacle, “Straight Outta Compton” has N.W.A’s blessing stamped all over it. Also Gray has a history of working with Ice Cube, first on his music video for “Today Was a Good Day” and then on “Friday”. However, chronicling the group from 1986 to Easy-E’s death in 1995, Gray was careful not to smooth over any of the group members’ most sobering moments. From a family death, money troubles, and Easy-E’s HIV diagnosis, the group’s trials and tribulations are laid bare for the world to see.
The film is remarkable because of how deeply it will resonate with today’s audience; not just because of the music and the talent that paved the way for icons like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar, but because of the prevalent theme of police brutality that runs throughout the film’s plot. The group is motivated to make their megahit “Fuck Tha Police” after experiencing some severe police harassment. Likewise, the Rodney King assault and trials are a constant, which ground the film soundly in the early 90s. However, when you consider the LA Riots and Ferguson, it becomes haunting and painful to see that we are still dealing with the same issues nearly 25 years later.
Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (who looks so similar to the icon that it’s almost unsettling) portrays his father in such a robust and profound manner that it was as if we were looking at the mogul himself. Relative newcomers Corey Hakwkins and Jason Mitchell portray Dr. Dre and Easy-E respectively with truth, grace and poise, while Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. round out the cast as MC Ren and DJ Yella. This ensemble of characters is exquisite to watch, and it becomes obvious to the audience how their fortitude as the young men of N.W.A helped mold them into the powerhouses they have become.
Also starring in the film is veteran actor Paul Giamatti as the group’s sleazy manager, Jerry Heller. His presence provides a sharp contrast to the lives of the group members, juxtaposed with privileged white America.
Despite its lengthy 2 hour and 30 minute run-time, “Straight Outta Compton” is gripping until the final shot. The iconic music will certainly resonate well, not only with the generation right before mine, but also with my own generation who are deeply ingrained in a culture that was fostered by these pioneers. But, “Straight Outta Compton’s” success goes beyond the music; it is a film for our generation. N.W.A used their lyrics, voices and experiences to talk about the importance of Black lives while dealing with pushback from both the general public and the FBI. Even if the experiences and music of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren are foreign to the viewer, the film itself will certainly keep you entertained.
N.W.A let people know that it was OK to speak up for themselves, and if you didn’t agree with them, they had no problem proving they could back up everything they spoke about. To put it frankly, they were about that life.
“Straight Outta Compton” opens in theaters today, Friday, August 14th.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami