Law Abiding Citizen helmsmen F. Gary Gray returns to directorial duties with rap biopic, Straight Outta Compton. Documenting the rise of hip hop super group NWA (‘Niggaz wit Attitude’) – whose founding members include rapper-turned-movie-star Ice Cube and producing maestro Dr Dre – it’s a culturally grounded rags-to-riches tale about a period which redefined the rap genre.
O’Shea ‘Ice Cube’ Jackson (played by Ice Cube’s real life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Andre ‘Dr. Dre’ Young (Corey Hawkins) – two friends and music lovers from the streets of Compton – team up with Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell) to form hip hop group NWA.
After the success of their first single – and with the help of music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) – the newly formed group land a record deal which gives them the financial clout to produce their first album. Their success is instant as their controversial lyrics resonate with millions, but internal conflicts and splintered relationships cause the group to collapse from within, and its leading members slowly begin to push in different directions.
Set to the backdrop of 1980s Los Angeles, Straight Outta Compton – named after the group’s 1988 debut album – bathes in its own powerful political and cultural subtexts. At its heart it’s about a group of young boys working their way off the mean streets – where drugs and violence are an every day occurrence – to make something better for themselves. Gray goes far beyond the music and fame; NWA was not just loud noises, swear words and whimsical rhyming lyrics – it was their own unique version of social commentary.
Police harassment – most notably climaxing in a rather dramatic chase scene during an NWA gig, after they were warned not to sing their “F**k the Police” song – is a reoccurring theme. A repeated clip of an old TV news piece of a black man being beaten by officers is a constant reminder of the origins of the group and their belief system.
The internal dynamics of NWA, including the in-fighting and contractual disputes – collated around the ticking time bomb of a relationship between Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller (the real Jerry Heller disputes his portrayal in the film) – resulting in break-ups, rap battles and a bitter-sweet attempted reunion, adds another layer to a very busy, yet spirited, spectacle.
There’s a depth to this NWA story that other recent biopics have tried, yet failed, to grasp. At times it feels more like a political rallying cry than a feature film – and questions over the seemingly favourable depiction of certain characters raises eyebrows – but for the most part, the Friday helmer has successfully intertwined the social undertones of the time with an attitude-filled story of a hip hop powerhouse to make one of the better biographical flicks of recent years.