This may sound like an odd question, but when’s the last time gangster rap brought a tear to your eye? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what may happen while watching the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. Based on the rise and fall of the California supergroup, director F. Gary Gray brings a behind-the-scenes look, taking us through all the breakups and breakdowns along the way. The most surprising thing of all may be the universal themes and pathos found in Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff’s screenplay, but that’s exactly what we get. While it may come with an obvious demographic. There’s plenty here for anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, regardless of race, you know who N.W.A. are: Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. And they’re all represented with the highest respect.
Starting in 1986 Compton, California, the teenagers are high schoolers, just trying to get by from day to day. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) can’t stop writing lyrics, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) has the beats, and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) has the connection. With Eazy-E working in a vinyl pressing factory, he’s discovered by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to help the group get their music to the public while creating Ruthless Records. Eventually, the pitfalls of fame are thrust upon them as they deal with racist cops — inspiring, of course, “Fuck tha Police” protesting police brutality and racial profiling — and each other. After Ice Cube quits and goes solo, a rivalry breaks out between him and N.W.A. And just when they think they can finally put their past behind them, the worst has yet to reveal itself.
I have to admit, there are definitely some surprises in store for those not as privy to the band’s history, such as myself. Eazy-E finding out he has HIV is the biggest tear jerker. The cast does a marvelous job of recreating the band, particularly Jackson, who is the spitting image of his father. And talk about a heavy load to bare, Jackson holds his own, even when up against Giamatti. Mitchell brings a humanity to Eazy-E, something that may seem surprising, especially with the amount of finger pointing that seems to happen at one point during the band’s breakup. But boys will be boys and the true villain finally gets his comeuppance. The music keeps the pace moving, but Gray always finds time to stop and let the band come to life whether they’re on deck in a recording studio, or having the time of their life at an after party.
There are also plenty of “cameos” spread throughout such as Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) and even Tupac (Marcc Rose). Gray also takes the time to reflect on the Rodney King beating as well as witnessing Jerry defend the boys against racial profiling, something we all know is still, unfortunately, happening today. Straight Outta Compton has a built in audience with N.W.A. fans, and does happen to fall into the cliches of biopics here and there, but the movie sheds light on a story that most thought would never see the light of day. Thankfully, Universal and Legendary Pictures found the best crew to bring it to the big screen, right where larger than life is right at home.