Charting the meteoric rise, bitter disintegration and tentative reconciliation of pioneering West Coast hip hop group N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is a curious beast, slightly uneven in texture but bolstered by some mesmerising performances, none more so than O’Shea Jackson, Jr’s portrayal of his real life father Ice Cube.
It’s perhaps not a surprise given their involvement in the production, but the film focuses its eye on Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Eazy-E , pushing DJ Yella, MC Ren and the barely acknowledged Arabian Prince into the background as it charts the gradual corrosion of their relationships at the hands of their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). While it’s unflinchingly honest about some of the interpersonal issues which both bonded and broke the group apart, the film remains surprisingly coy about some aspects of the group’s history. It glosses over the misogyny and homophobia which were synonymous with Gangsta Rap, preferring a more streamlined narrative casting the quintet as warrior poets, giving voice to the angry truth of young black lives in America.
The film begins in 1986, showing us a glimpse of the heavy-handed police tactics of the time and an inkling of how precarious an existence it was to live in a world dominated by a prejudiced and hostile police force on one side and the vicious turf war between the street gangs on the other. It doesn’t take long for the movie to get to the formation of N.W.A., though. If anything, the first act of the movie feels a bit rushed, giving the no-doubt erroneous impression that it was pretty easy for the group to land a manager and a recording contract.
Once it settles into the N.W.A. era, though, it becomes an absorbing drama of ego, artistry, money and social rebellion. Ironically, there are times where the film feels like a gritty, hip hop version of “Jersey Boys”, but thanks to director F Gary Gray and his superb cast it soars far above Eastwood’s flat and lifeless 2014 film. The cultural backdrop to the story helps enormously, lending the film a discomfiting contemporary relevance, with the scenes of police harassment, the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots bringing recent events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri into sharp focus and showing how far America has[n’t] actually come in the past quarter century.
With a rushed beginning and a gripping middle section, the film takes another unexpected turn in its last half hour or so, indulging in a sentimentality more befitting a Lifetime original movie as Eazy-E’s HIV diagnosis – then, unlike now, a certain death sentence – derails the planned N.W.A. reunion. It’s an odd tonal shift but thanks to everything that’s gone before, it’s easy to overlook. Although it feels like it pulls its punches at times – it only merits a 15 certificate in the UK and isn’t anywhere near as violent or explicit as you would expect – this is still a powerful, angry and poetic biopic; emulating its subjects and providing a spectacular showcase for their triumphs, their mistakes and, of course, their ground-breaking music.