In the late 1980s – against a backdrop of simmering tensions on the streets of America - a group of disaffected and talented individuals formed what is now commonly known as a ‘super-group’. The NWA (Niggaz with Attitudes) were one of the earliest and most significant influences on both the gansgsta rap movement and American culture as a whole.
Fuelled with anger at the establishment (the police in particular) and seeking a voice to highlight the growing dissention felt amongst most of their contemporaries and peers; Ice Cube (O’shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and Mc Ren (Aldis Hodge) managed to capture public feeling and revolutionise the whole face of west coast hip-hop with their blistering lyrics and in-your-face style.
F Gary Gray’s first feature since 2009s Law Abiding Citizen is a biopic of the groups rise and fall and also an attempt to shine a spotlight on the harsher realities of street life and ‘the Hood’ that became the central focus of many of the bands greatest hits. Police brutality and the stand against this feature prominently and there is a running theme throughout with numerous references to the likes of Rodney King and even examples of how the central players themselves have been a victim of the so-called ‘stereo-typing’ against black youths that was a prominent problem throughout Compton and other such like areas throughout America.
As with any subject that revolves around the negative role of police and law enforcement there is a tendency to perhaps paint the central characters in a sympathetic light and it is on the whole the police officers themselves that are seen as the villains of the piece. Gray on the whole provides a sound and exhilarating direction but at times this becomes tainted by a propensity to grand-stand and moralise when more restraint would have allowed the audience to decide for themselves. There is a feeling Straight Outta Compton is perilously close to becoming a propaganda piece rather than the absorbing insight into a fascinating set of talented individuals that it just about manages to be.
Gripes about directorial intent aside however this is a thoroughly engrossing view into what was a fascinating set of complex individuals with Jackson Jr. and Mitchell in particular taking a central part in proceedings.
As is to be expected with a musical biopic, the soundtrack is pumping and fuelled with the vibrancy and anger of disaffected youth – it will be hard to keep both your head and feet still with the pulsating beat that leaps off the screen.
The cinematography on display is simple yet effective and echoes the impressive marketing angle that was first employed by the group themselves. The use of plain black and white is pain-staking at times and really helps Straight Outta Compton to convey a visual style all of it’s own. Despite this somewhat unique feel, the influence of ‘Hood Classics’ such as Boyz N’ The Hood, Menace II Society and New Jack City are obvious and this provides a neat ‘full circle’ effect when you consider that the NWA themselves were seminal influences on the rash of early 90’s ‘ghetto movies’ that sought to shine a light on this dark underbelly of the American dream.
As mentioned previously, whilst the movie depicts the assembling and fracture of a group it is primarily the story of Ice Cube and Eazy-E that drives most of the narrative forward.
In the first of these roles Cube’s own son - O’Shea Jackson Jr. – is tasked with bringing to life his fathers story in a piece of casting that could just as easily be disastrous or inspired dependant on the outcome. Happily it is the latter as Jackson Jr. provides just enough screen presence to match his striking resemblance to his father. It would have been easy for the young actor to coast on physical characteristics alone but he instead provides a credible take that just about manages to convey the right amount of anger and passion, so much so it is hard to remember you aren’t actually watching archive footage of Cube himself.
Despite further solid performances from most of the central cast it is Jason Mitchell in his role as Eazy-E who steals the film from his co-stars. In equal measure Mitchell displays a broad range of emotions as his character evolves from a cocky fearless street hood to a ruthless somewhat shady business man and finally becomes a scared and vulnerable shell as he is shattered by personal tragedy. It is Eazy-E’s character arc that is the most compelling and serves as a microcosm for the group as a whole and Mitchell carries the movie admirably.
It also doesn’t hurt either of these young players to have the ever-excellent Paul Giamatti – in all almost unrecognisable role as shady music manager Jerry Heller – on hand to add more fuel to his claim as being perhaps Hollywoods most under-rated actor and ensures that from an acting perspective Straight Outta Compton delivers in spades.
The one real criticism of the film – aside from it’s ability to sometimes slip towards a moralising tone – is the fact that a huge amount of momentum is lost with the film’s final hour. As the movie starts to move away from the groups forming and success and begins to chart it’s fall it is hard to shake the feeling that the energy and exhilaration of the film’s opening becomes dissipated with dialogue heavy scenes that revolve around contract wranglings and law suits.
The humour and power that accompanied most of the movies start slips through the fractures in the narrative that appear in the same way as the cracks in the group itself and whilst it is unavoidable to show the splintering as it happened in reality it also can’t be denied that the film loses it’s way a little and only really finds it’s connection to the audience again with the film’s conclusion and the fate of one of it’s main characters.
Due to this imbalance the film feels around 30-40 minutes too long and there is no escaping the feeling that this bloated section is only saved by an excellent beginning and a truly devastating and emotional end – particularly for those unfamiliar with the real-life events of these characters.
On the whole then Straight Outta Compton is a mesmerising study of one America’s most influential music groups that provides a vivacious and adrenalin-fuelled insight into what was a truly legendary line-up of modern day artists. Noteable stand-outs performances from Mitchell and Jackson Jr. also add to the allure and despite an over-long final third that loses much of the excitement that had previously been constructed this is still thoroughly worth a viewing.
This isn’t just a simple biopic - this is the depiction of a new cultural wave that we are seeing created before our very eyes via a disaffected youth who are finding their voice through the somewhat controversial and aggressive lyrics of these young black men. As Ice Cube himself so excellently argues when accused that his lyrics are sparking trouble whenever they are heard “Our art is a reflection of our reality” - a very concise and unarguable point which only adds to the feeling that this is one of 2015s most engaging and fascinating movies.