Straight Outta Compton ***1/2

It’s one of the best musical biopics you’ll ever see.

Is it worth $10? Yes

What an awesome surprise “Straight Outta Compton” is. If you think this is just another “Behind The Music” TV-quality retrospective of famous musicians, you’d be sorely mistaken. This film has grit, universal appeal and the conviction to tell the story of rap group N.W.A. with startling candor, from vast success to internal dissension to heartbreak.

In 1986 N.W.A. (an acronym that cannot be spelled out by someone who’s white) burst onto the scene with their breakthrough album “Straight Outta Compton.” “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” founding member Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) says, and true to form the group’s daily lives surrounded by gangs, drugs, abusive cops and other dangers serve as inspiration for N.W.A.’s music. After the release of the hit song “Boyz-n-the-Hood” the group, which also includes Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), is signed by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) to produce a record. Hit songs include “F--- the Police,” “Express Yourself,” “Gangsta Gangsta,” the titular “Straight Outta Compton” and more. Police and authority figures hate their anti-establishment messages, but they’re a huge hit, ultimately selling three million records.

And just when they’re at the height of their fame, when the women and acclaim and notoriety can’t get any better, boom! It all comes crashing down. Why? Because of the one thing people covet regardless of whether they’re black, brown, white, yellow, or purple: money.

What’s solid about director F. Gary Gray’s (“The Italian Job”) film is that it’s patient enough to slowly introduce characters and develop them as people, not caricatures. Doing this also provides insight into the world in which they live. We’re taken by the danger, discord, poverty and desperation members of the Compton community inside Los Angeles share, and completely understand why these young men are angry and searching for a way out.

The real highlight of the film isn’t the music or story – it’s the acting. O’Shea Jackson is Ice Cube’s real-life son, so one imagines it felt a bit odd for Jackson to play his father on screen. Regardless, it’s a strong, vigorous performance, as is Corey Hawkins’ turn as Dr. Dre, a man who wanted to focus on music and had little regard for the nonsense that surrounded him, especially after he went into business with Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The real standout, however, is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E. The role requires huge swings in terms of emotion and bravado, and Mitchell pulls off each moment wonderfully. It’s a long shot, but it’d be great if Mitchell earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination – yes, he’s that good.

Similar to how the Blaxploitation film movement gave African-Americans a voice on screen in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, N.W.A. exposed truths about life in the ‘hood and started the “gangster rap” style of profanity and violence in song lyrics. How honest the film truly is only the participants know (and note Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are producers of the film), but “Straight Outta Compton” the movie feels pretty raw and genuine, which is also a fitting description of N.W.A.’s music.

Did you know?
A Los Angeles Times article from 2007 wrote that “80% of the sales of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ were in the suburbs, mainly to teenage boys,” suggesting a seismic crossover appeal that transcended racial barriers.

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